Actor Emery Battis passed away September 20th at the age of 96. Like many theatergoers, I grew up watching him onstage and came to think of him as a production’s good luck charm. Emery’s in the house, all’s well in the world.
Five years ago, he was still a working actor, appearing as Justice in the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Pericles. Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, proclaimed him “the oldest actor working consistently on an American stage” for a Washington Post profile of the actor by Peter Marks that appeared when Battis was a young pup of 89 rehearsing Hamlet with a cadre of actors young enough to be his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Battis’ resume reads like the classical canon–all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays except one (more on that later), appearances in 70 of Shakespeare Theatre’s productions ranging from, of course, the Bard, to Oscar Wilde, Ibsen, Moliere, Shaw, O’Neill, Sheridan and Webster.
He mostly eschewed film and TV work — though many still fondly recall his appearance on the cult series “St. Elsewhere” — for classical theater. During his nearly 80-year career as an actor, director and stage-manager primarily on the East Coast, he worked with a veritable “who’s who” in the theater: Sir John Gielgud, Lynn Redgrave, Uta Hagen, Coleen Dewhurst, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Robeson, Eva LeGallienne, Blythe Danner, John Lithgow, Jose Ferrer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mercedes McCambridge, Kim Hunter.
In 1967, the Cleveland Plain Dealer called his Lear “the best Lear of our generation.” On his bucket list was Cymbeline, and last year Kahn tried to arrange a walk-on for one night during the play’s run at Stratford-Upon-Avon, but Battis was too ill at that point to perform. “He wanted to do it, but his body would not cooperate,” said Kahn.
“He was a tremendous actor and people tend to remember him for his dramatic roles, but he was also a gifted comedy actor and a great sport. Remember his Comedy of Errors with his hair on fire, jumping into the orchestra pit? Marvelous.”
During Round House’s 2002 production of The Cherry Orchard, he played the servant Firs alongside Washington actor Susan Lynskey. “Such a brilliant, funny, kindhearted man,” she said. “I so loved being onstage with him in The Cherry Orchard and even more delighted to be tucked in the stairwell under the stage—that’s where we servants were kept. He and I listened for cues, whispered under the set and I got to hear all his stories about his extraordinary life in the theater and him quoting his favorite passages of Keats.”
His longevity in the footlights is just one of his achievements. A native of Massachusetts, Battis graduated from Harvard and the Leland Powers School of the Theater in Boston, where he learned voice training and diction. He also refined a love of building characters from the outside in that started in high school, when he played older men, transforming his youthful features with makeup.
“My Dad loved to do his own elaborate makeup design and costume touches, having learned to improvise in an earlier age. He had an actor’s manual from the 1860’s that had belonged to his great-grandfather that had recipes for makeup and an inventory of the costume pieces an actor was supposed to supply for himself, as well as a long list of classical parts one should commit to memory and be able to perform on short notice. I remember him spending hours constructing a baldpate wig and dyeing a hat in coffee to create the right look for Old Mahon in Playboy of the Western World. He delighted in nose putty and dermawax to alter and magnify his already prominent nose,” noted son Peter Battis in a Facebook tribute to his father.
After World War II, Battis returned to school and was awarded a PhD from Columbia. In 1948, he joined the faculty of what was to become Rutgers University, where he taught history. “So many people remember Emery as an actor, but he was a learned professor for many years,” said Kahn. “In his spare time, he was a docent at museums in Washington, talking about the paintings and history.”
By 1968, he was ready to leave academia to return to the stage — joining a Shakespeare festival in Ohio run by John Lithgow’s father. There followed roles at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the McCarter at Princeton, and the Long Wharf in New Haven, where Kahn first encountered him. “Emery was in The Cavern and his character ended the first act by doing a little improv with the audience that was supposed to last one or two minutes,” he said. “He went on to do 20 minutes. So erudite.”
Battis arrived in Washington in the 1980s, and endeared himself through the years to audiences in character roles large and small. Awards were not his thing — he refused to be nominated for Helen Hayes awards, but the organization did give him an Honorary Award in 2002.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company established the Emery Battis Award for Acting Excellence, something Kahn believes the actor liked. “He’ll always have something named for him that is for the actors—he was pleased to allow that.”
This year’s Award, which includes a prize of $5,000, was presented Sept 12, 2011 to Holly Twyford for her performance as Anna in Old Times and to Mark Nelson for his role as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.