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Paxton Whitehead, actor who found comedy in stuffy roles, dies at 85

ByTeam BB

Jun 22, 2023

Paxton Whitehead, a British-born stage and screen actor who teased out comedy from the stodgiest heights, most memorably as a snooty academic in Rodney Dangerfield’s campus romp “Back to School” and in haughty roles in sitcoms including “Friends” and “Frasier,” died June 16 at a hospital in Arlington, Va. He was 85.

His daughter, Alex Whitehead-Gordon, said her father had health complications after a fall.

Mr. Whitehead built a steady career in film and TV, mastering an accent that dripped of self-styled superiority and using just a flick of an eyebrow or a subtle wince with comedic precision. The theater, however, was where Mr. Whitehead thoroughly explored his range as an actor in dozens of roles over more than five decades.

On Broadway, Mr. Whitehead received a Tony Award nomination in a 1980 revival of the musical “Camelot” playing the endearingly wayward King Pellinore opposite Richard Burton’s King Arthur. Earlier, Mr. Whitehead brought a comic touch to Sherlock Holmes with co-star Glenn Close (whose character hires the detective) in Paul Giovanni’s “The Crucifer of Blood,” which ran on Broadway from 1978 and 1979.

In a rare foray into the deeply dramatic, Mr. Whitehead took on the title role in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” at the Old Globe theater in San Diego in 1985. And even with Richard, Mr. Whitehead infused comic touches as a counterpoint to the king’s malevolence. “With understated cunning,” noted a Los Angeles Times review, “Whitehead and his character make us loathe and laugh.”

The theater fit well into Mr. Whitehead’s love of language and respect for its power. For every role, Mr. Whitehead said he first tried to capture the character’s “rhythm and sound” — whether the button-down solicitor Mr. Bardolph in the lore-versus-fact comedy “Lettice and Lovage” on Broadway in 1990, or in revivals of the musical “My Fair Lady” as both the eccentric Colonel Pickering or the pompous Henry Higgins.

“Theater is words. Sound. Everything else is secondary,” he told the Province newspaper in Vancouver in 1971. “All the other attributes embellish what is being said. … I am highly suspicious of trends that distract from the words.”

Mr. Whitehead was artistic director and actor from 1967 to 1977 of the annual Shaw Festival in Ontario. He began landing cameos on television series in the early 1980s including the mystery series “Hart to Hart” and detective drama “Magnum P.I.” He later played recurring roles as a frazzled butler in the sitcom “Marblehead Manor” (1987-88) and as an uptight neighbor of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in eight episodes of the sitcom “Mad About You” (1992-1999).

In the 1998 season of “Friends,” Mr. Whitehead was the supercilious Bloomingdale’s boss of Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), and he played a stuffy prep school headmaster in “Frasier” in 1996, using his hawklike appearance to full comic effect. The TV roles continued on popular dramas including “The West Wing” as Bernard Thatch, an annoyingly opinionated White House staffer.

“I think there are certain things you can’t learn,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Comedy is not just timing as people most often say. It’s everything. The way you walk. The way you look.”

He mobilized all his snobbish mannerisms for his film debut in the 1986 comedy “Back to School,” starring Dangerfield as a wisecracking businessman, Thornton Melon, who enrolls in his son’s college after giving a major donation. Mr. Whitehead is the head of the business school, Philip Barbay, who tries to get Melon expelled.

In their first encounter, Melon is at the groundbreaking ceremony for a business school building he has funded. Barbay, wearing a tweed cap, bow tie and indignant scowl, interrupts the event to tell the school’s dean (Ned Beatty) that he does not think “selling admission to an obviously unqualified student is very ethical or honorable.”

“Listen, Sherlock,” Melon retorts, “while you were tucked away up here working on your ethics, I was out there busting my hump in the real world.”

A few moments later, Melon scoops up a shovelful of dirt and tosses it. It rains down on Mr. Whitehead’s character, sitting in his open-top MG. It has, of course, right-hand British steering.

Francis Edward Paxton Whitehead was born on Oct. 17, 1937, in East Malling and Larkfield in England’s Kent countryside. His father was a lawyer, and his mother, an American-born former actress, was a homemaker. Mr. Whitehead was called Paxton since boyhood.

He studied at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London and later found roles in touring troupes and roles such as the guard Francisco in “Hamlet” in 1958. “But I was the lowest of lows,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

A dual British-U. S. citizen, he struck out for the United States in 1960 with no definite plans. “Perhaps spend a year seeing what happens and seeing the country,” he recounted. He never returned to live in Britain full-time and soon made his way to Broadway, making his debut in the drama “The Affair” in 1962 and returning two years later appearing in “Beyond the Fringe,” the hit British comedy revue.

He appeared on Broadway in more than a dozen other productions. He also performed at venues across Canada and the United States, including roles in farces by French playwright George Feydeau, and playing alongside Tim Conway as old friends in Ron Clark’s comedy “A Bench in the Sun” in 1999 at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse.

In films, Mr. Whitehead had small roles alongside Whoopi Goldberg in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986) and with Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard in “Baby Boom” (1987). In “Kate & Leopold” (2001), starring Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan, Mr. Whitehead played the uncle of the time-traveling Leopold (Jackman).

Mr. Whitehead’s first marriage, to actress Patricia Gage, ended in divorce. His second wife, Katherine Robertson, died in 2009. In addition to his daughter, of Arlington, Va., survivors include a son, Charles, of Lincoln, Calif., both from his second marriage; a stepdaughter, Heather Whitehead; and four grandchildren.

In a 2017 interview, Mr. Whitehead was asked to sum up his life and career in a single word. He responded quickly: “Serendipitous!”

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