News Column

Clayton Corzatte is remembered for more than fine acting

May 20, 2013

YellowBrix

May 20--The outpouring of appreciation for Seattle actor-director-teacher Clayton Corzatte, since his passing last month at age 86, has been exceptional. It will likely continue at a free public celebration of Corzatte's life and work at 7 p.m. Monday at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

The local theater community is tightknit and familial, and Corzatte and his devoted actress wife, Susan, have been at the heart of it (primarily as performers) for more than four decades.

But the fondness that flowed toward the couple since he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease two years ago was not just for his scores of appearances at Seattle Repertory, Intiman, New City and ACT theaters, as well as at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other Northwest theaters since moving to Seattle in 1969.

Nor was it based on Corzatte's admirable full body of work, which began (after college and a stint in the Navy) at Virginia's famed Barter Theatre and continued with the pioneering Association for Producing Artists (APA), the idealistic ensemble in which a young Corzatte earned a Tony Award nomination in "The School for Scandal" on Broadway.

It was the kind of actor Corzatte was, along with the kind of person he was, as well as what he represented to fellow actors and theatergoers, that gave him such special standing.

Watching the lean, fresh-faced actor in many productions since the early 1990s, I was always doubly conscious of the craft and the ease of his performances. His characterizations were physically and vocally detailed, yet uncluttered and natural. He always knew exactly whom he was playing, and did so with unfussy authenticity. (For good actors, to borrow Shakespeare's words, "No legacy is so rich as honesty.")

In later years, Clayton was often typecast as twinkly, lovable elders -- the tax-dodging patriarch in "You Can't Take It With You," the cheeky Yankee codger in "White Christmas," a good-hearted missionary in "Guys and Dolls."

But Corzatte could work the dark side of the psyche too, as in his flinty, paranoid take on King Lear, and his portrait of a sour, belligerent cardplayer in "The Gin Game," opposite his wife (his favorite acting partner).

A memory of him onstage I will cherish: his graceful portrayal of a frail, centenarian poet in "The Night of the Iguana." In the character's final moments, reciting a valedictory poem long in the making, he was utterly transporting.

Whenever I met Clayton offstage, he was unfailingly pleasant, unassuming and charming. A born storyteller, he was also a devotee of classical music, and I often ran into him and Susan at Meany Hall and Benaroya concerts.

Acting in the theater is, to put it mildly, no path to riches and rarely one to glory. In fact, most longtime thespians are in the position of subsidizing the nonprofit regional theater industry, rather than profiting by it.

Yet for 60 years, Clayton Corzatte made a life in the theater -- his true place in the world -- and a full life outside it. He and his wife bought a modest house on Queen Anne with a gorgeous view (when that was possible for non-moguls), raised two children and became grandparents. They taught at Cornish College, and took what film and TV work came to them.

They were proud to be working performers, without ostentation or national celebrity, and were pleased when awarded a joint Gregory A. Falls lifetime-achievement award from Theatre Puget Sound.

In 1999, when I asked Clayton (then in his 70s) about plans to retire, he would have none of it. "I hope Susan and I go on playing as long as we can play," he told me. "And it's always such fun to work together. There's a special chemistry that happens whenever we're on the same stage."

He did play for as long as he could. But it was much more than longevity that made Clayton Corzatte an inspiration and role model for many of his peers.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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