The Tony-winning character actor George S. Irving, who died on December 26 at age 94, exemplified art that conceals art. Born George Irving Shelasky to a Russian Jewish immigrant family, he adopted a stage name redolent of success, following the example of the hit playwright George S. Kaufman. Apparently the last survivor of the original 1943 cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” Irving’s resonant baritone in the chorus was surely refined by hearing the star singer Alfred Drake in that production. An example of Irving’s vocal artistry survives from 1955 in a TV episode of “The Goldbergs.” Irving played the role of Oscar, a singing butcher in the same year that Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning film “Marty” further glamorized the yatke. Allowed to sing operetta-style music convincingly, Irving also impresses by deftly waltzing in the tiny set of the Goldberg apartment without mishap.
In 1948, his predilections for the dance were underscored when he married the Hartford-born ballerina Maria Karnilova, of Russian origin, who would later play Golde in the original 1964 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” opposite Zero Mostel.Irving’s Broadway farewell in 1986, as the haughty Sir John Tremayne in the retro British musical “Me and My Girl,” featured the earworm “Lambeth Walk.” Each performance, with discipline and skill, Irving studied the high-stepping Cockney dancers as if he were soberly examining a new-fangled dance technique, before finally joining in the antics. His vocal chops were also indisputable, as can be heard on the CD of Marc Blitzstein’s opera “Regina” from a 1958 New York City Opera revival. While Irving appeared in many legendary hits, including original productions of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1949), “Can-Can” (1953), “Bells Are Ringing” (1956), and “Irma La Douce” (1960), he was not limited to musicals. Around 1962 he joined the cast of “Seidman and Son,” about a New York Jewish garment manufacturer, in an ensemble led by the actor Sam Levene. Although critics found the result a trifle schmaltzy and conventional, audiences adored the play’s flavorful repartee. His range also extended to a 1967 revival of Brecht’s “Galileo” and the title role in Gore Vidal’s 1972 stage satire, “An Evening With Richard Nixon and…”
Inevitably for a performer who worked continuously for so many years, Irving also redeemed his share of flops. One such was Richard Rodgers’ 1979 musical, “I Remember Mama,” where Irving performed the salty role of Uncle Chris, incarnated in the original drama and film by Oscar Homolka. Another noble failure was Irving as the tomcat Big Bill in “Shinbone Alley,” a musical co-written by Mel Brooks, based on columns by the humorist Don Marquis. Irving took such failures in stride. In an interview earlier this year, he recalled a short-lived 1981 adaptation of Dickens, “Copperfield,” with music by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn:
“After we opened, it’s customary when you’re a flop for the big star to step forward to ask the audience if you enjoyed it and to please tell your friends. We had Lillian Gish and Lillian made the speech, and it was a charming speech, and after she was finished, in the wings I said, ‘Lillian, that was marvelous. If you were Jewish, I’d marry you.’ And she said, with that sweet face, [assuming a proper New England accent] ‘How do you know I’m not?’”
Given Irving’s vast professional resume, it is understandable that the then-93-year-old erred slightly in his anecdote. The failed musical in which he appeared with the silent screen actress Gish was “Anya,” a 1965 adaptation of the story of Anastasia, the Russian Imperial claimant, with melodies adapted from works by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Slated as a corny operetta, “Anya” cast the 72-year-old Gish as the Dowager Empress; by 1981, when “Copperfield” opened, she was 88 and no longer active onstage. Still, it is entirely likely that in 1965 at “Anya,” Irving did jest about offering his hand in wedlock to Gish. By that time he had already been married to Karlinova for many years. Gish, for her part, never married, but was involved in a long-term affair with the American Jewish theater critic George Jean Nathan, who died in 1958. A notorious snob, Nathan always staunchly denied being of Jewish origin, as Gish’s biographer Charles Affron recounts. This led to many complications, such as when Gish rented an apartment for them in a fancy restricted building. Finally, Gish broke off the affair, claiming that she did not mind if Nathan were Jewish, but his lying about the matter was disturbing. Her conversation a few years later with Irving suggests that Gish was probably more open-minded about Jews and Judaism than Nathan or his professional colleagues such as H. L. Mencken, who accused her of anti-Semitism.
With a variety of carefully honed skills, George S. Irving was able to leave behind tangible evidence of his gifts. A masterful voiceover actor whose ear was sharpened in the radio era, Irving was a popular narrator for the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” recordings, and is still remembered for his brio as the singing Heat Miser in “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” a 1974 stop-motion holiday TV extravaganza, a role given to Harvey Fierstein in the 2006 remake.
Irving’s diction was so practiced that he recorded an entire album of tongue twisters for Caedmon, and replaced the dazzling George Rose as the Major General in Joseph Papp’s 1981 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” Irving could perform with discipline and restraint, but when given license to be over-the-top, as in the role of the fey dress designer Madame Lucy in “Irene,” he chewed scenery memorably, on that occasion winning a Tony Award for his efforts. The go-to actor for accents of all kinds, as the equally exuberant Sergei Alexandrovitch in the 1983 restaging of Rodgers and Hart’s “On Your Toes” Irving created a poetic impression with the yearning “Quiet Night.” In the song’s introduction, Hart wrote: “Horace was a poet who adored the night;/ in his verse he always underscored the night.” With unsurpassed depth of abilities and experience, Irving was one of the few Broadway musical performers able to convincingly refer to the Latin poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.