Wednesday 21 March 2018

Gene Barry

Debonair screen sleuth who turned up at crime scenes in a Rolls-Royce

Gene Barry, who has died aged 90, was best known for his starring role as a gentleman sleuth in the Sixties television series Burke's Law, and for his Broadway appearance in the 1980s hit musical La Cage aux Folles. In Burke's Law, Barry starred as Amos Burke, a debonair Beverly Hills police chief of independent means and Olympian sexual dynamism who turned up at crime scenes in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce. The series was remarkable for the prolific number of guest stars it featured, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sammy Davis Jr and Dorothy Lamour.

A spin-off series, Amos Burke, Secret Agent, failed to measure up to the expectations of a viewing public becoming accustomed to the macho glamour of James Bond. Originally designed as a vehicle for Dick Powell, Burke's Law was revived in 1994 with a distinctly wrinklier Barry reprising the title role, this time helped by his on-screen son, played by Peter Barton.

By then, Barry's habit of adding "Burke's law" after each aphorism ("Never make fun of older women -- one day you'll be married to one. Burke's law" was a typical example) had become tiresome. A critic likened the comeback to a corpse that had been artificially resuscitated.

The Adventurer (1972) -- created by the team behind The Saint and The Avengers -- was a secret-agent drama made in Britain, in which Barry played Gene Bradley, a secret agent masquerading as an international film star. while John Barry wrote the theme music.

Barry's first venture into television in America, between 1959 and 1961, was as a womanising cowpoke-turned-lawman in the title role of Bat Masterson. He described his character as "a clean-cut but sophisticated cowboy who never trod in manure when he jumped off his horse".

Gene Barry was born Eugene Klass on June 14, 1919, in New York City. His father, a jeweller, brought him up to believe that things always happened for the best. This stood him in good stead when, as a first-rate American footballer and violinist, a broken arm put paid to his both sporting and instrumental ambitions. Undeterred, he won a singing scholarship to Chatham Square School of Music. When explaining the paternal precept of his upbringing to reporters, he said that if he had not taken up singing, acting would never have entered his head.

A radio contract led to a prewar stint as a vocalist with Teddy Powell's band during which he was spotted by the producer Max Reinhardt, who cast him as The Bat in the Broadway show Rosalinda. Two years later he went into the Broadway show The Merry Widow.

Impresario Mike Todd persuaded him to appear opposite Mae West in Catherine Was Great by offering to double his salary. To Todd's chagrin, Barry left the show after accepting another "double your salary" offer to appear in the musical Glad to See You. Although this was short-lived, it was through this production that Barry met his wife, Betty Kalb, who acted under the name Julie Carson.

In 1944 Barry found himself unemployed and took other work, first as a salesman and later as a jeweller's assistant. His fortunes improved in 1951 when Paramount offered him a film contract. Barry immediately landed two parts playing scientists, in The Atomic City and War Of The Worlds (both 1952). Paramount then decided to cast him as a "heavy", first in a musical called Red Garters (1954) and then in two dramas that offered greater scope for his acting skills. In Alaska Seas he was a desperate trawler skipper and in Naked Alibi a vicious maniac on the run. The following year found him in Soldier of Fortune (1955), with Clark Gable, and in 1957 he was in China Gate and Forty Guns.

The two films Barry made in the 1960s -- Maroc 7 in 1967 and Subterfuge with Joan Collins two years later -- were generally judged to be dire. Nor were the critics much kinder to his British-made television series The Adventurer, which amounted to a reinvention of Amos Burke in another guise. One reviewer dismissed the series as third-class rubbish for an American market.

Barry was nominated for a Tony award for his portrayal of Georges in the 1983 Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles, the farce about a homosexual couple living in St Tropez.

When not acting, Barry performed a cabaret turn in which he sang, danced and told jokes. Like his alter ego Burke, Barry travelled everywhere in a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and dressed to concur. Home was a colonial-style Hollywood mansion complete with swimming pool.

Gene Barry died on December 9. His wife predeceased him, and he is survived by their two sons and a daughter.

Sunday Independent

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