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FIRST-PERSON: Christian actor had compassion

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Jack Kruschen passed away April 2 without receiving much notoriety. His death wasn’t even reported to the news media until more than a month later. Now the majority of you, with the exception of the most ardent movie buffs, might be asking, “Who’s Jack Kruschen?”

Well, he was a sweet, gentle, unpretentious man who also happened to be a character actor, having worked with nearly every Hollywood legend from John Wayne in “McLintock” to Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in the original “Cape Fear.”

I’m constantly finding films where he pops up, such as “Lover Come Back” with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, “The Last Voyage” with Robert Stack and George Sanders and “Meet Danny Wilson” with Frank Sinatra. He was even nominated for a best supporting Oscar in “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Bob Hope, James Stewart, Jerry Lewis, Abbott & Costello, Steve Allen, Debbie Reynolds, Elvis and the other king, Clark Gable. You name ’em, he worked with them.

The other night I saw Kruschen on the cable channel TV Land in two different shows, one being the old comic spoof Batman with Adam West.

Suffice it to say, Jack was one very busy thespian.

Like so many “character” players whose faces you quickly recognize but never seem to place with a name, he was a consummate professional. He could be counted on to deliver a comic moment when needed or, upon occasion, menace the lead.

Kruschen, who was 80 when he died, had spent six decades in show business, with 20 years of radio experience before making more than 75 movies and appearing in hundreds of TV shows and commercials.

1980s kids may best remember him as the Greek grandfather on the sitcom “Webster.” Sci-fi aficionados may remember him as one of the first three humans killed by a Martian death ray in the 1953 B-classic “The War of the Worlds.” And the recent generation of moviegoers may remember him for his final film role in the 1997 romantic comedy “Till There Was You,” though I doubt it. I’ve yet to find anyone who actually went to that one.

I have my own fond memory of Jack. For years I attended the Shepherd of the Hills Baptist church in Porter Ranch, Calif., with Jess Moody as my pastor. In his later years, Kruschen and his wife, Mary, began attending our church. While heading up the drama department at the time, I asked if he would participate in a skit I had written for a Sunday morning service. Despite his poor health, and seemingly having no qualms about doing a church play even though he had spent his life working with great directors such as Billy Wilder and Edward Dmytryk, he kindly agreed.

During our first rehearsal, he did the scene competently, but not as I had envisioned. Upon giving him a different direction to take the character, the veteran of radio, stage, screen and TV responded, “You’re the director.” No “Hey, kid, I’ve been doing this for 50 years.” No argument. No attitude. I wasn’t Billy Wilder, but I was the director. And he was a pro.

Some time later, I interviewed Jack for an article about Hollywood. As the session went on, he sensed the pain I was going through over my inept handling of an ending relationship. So he and Mary began ministering to me. There was no judgment. No “Brother, you need to do this or that before God can forgive you.” He simply assured me of God’s grace.

Now, whenever I see Jack Kruschen on my TV screen, I realize how lucky John Wayne and Doris Day and Adam West were. For, like me, they knew him to be a kind man, a man of faith.
Philip Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For more information about his service, go to www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright