Stage Door News

Arlington, VA: Paxton Whitehead, Artistic Director Emeritus of the Shaw Festival, has died at age of 85

Monday, June 19, 2023

Tributes have poured in for Friends star Paxton Whitehead after his death at the age of 85.

The English actor, who was an Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival in Canada, a Broadway stalwart and regular guest star in an array of Nineties sitcoms, died on Friday, June 16, at a hospital in Arlington, Virginia, from complications of a fall.

His son, Charles Whitehead, confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday morning.

Francis Edward Paxton Whitehead was an English actor, theatre director and playwright who was born in East Malling and Larkfield, Kent. He was nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for his performance as Pellinore in the 1980 revival of Camelot. He had many Broadway roles. He was also known for his film roles and was well known, especially to U.S. and television audiences in general, for his many guest appearances on several U.S. shows, especially guest appearances on major sitcoms of the 1990s, such as Frasier, Caroline in the City, Ellen, 3rd Rock from the Sun, The Drew Carey Show, Mad About You and Friends.

The son of a lawyer, Francis Edward Paxton Whitehead was born on Oct. 17, 1937, in Kent, England. He began his career in small touring companies before being signed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1958.

“When I was younger, I would try very hard to get the vocal point right", he said. “If I felt the rhythm and sound of the character — if I got that right, and usually the difference is very subtle — then I think everything else seemed to follow, the movement and so on”.

It wasn’t long before his work took him to the U.S., where in 1961 he directed Doric Wilson’s first play to be performed, an off-off-Broadway production of the comedy And He Made a Her at the Caffe Cino.

The following year, he made his own Broadway debut in Ronald Millar’s The Affair, then had a long run touring and on Broadway in Beyond the Fringe.

In 1967 Whitehead succeeded Barry Morse as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, the only repertory company in the world dedicated to the works of George Bernard Shaw. Under his leadership, it continued to develop into an international event. During his tenure he was able to push through a plan of building the purpose-built 869 seat state-of-the-art Festival Theatre to expand considerably the capacity for audiences at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Queen Elizabeth II, Indira Gandhi and Pierre Trudeau were among those who attended performances at the Shaw Festival Theatre during its inaugural season in 1973.

He served until 1977 and appeared in productions as actor. His notable appearances included The Apple Cart, Major Barbara, The Philanderer, Arms and the Man, Misalliance and Heartbreak House with Jessica Tandy. Whitehead and Suzanne Grossman adapted Georges Feydeau's plays There's One in Every Marriage for the Broadway stage in 1971 and Chemin de Fer in 1974.

Whitehead received an honorary degree in arts from Trent University in 1978 and earned a Tony Award nomination for Camelot in 1980.

Whitehead appeared 16 more times on Broadway from 1962-2018, including My Fair Lady with Richard Chamberlain, Lettice and Lovage, Noises Off and The Importance of Being Earnest.

He also famously starred as Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood in 1978 and 1979, which ran for 236 performances at the Helen Hayes Theatre. He starred alongside Glenn Close in the production, which was nominated for four Tony Awards.

Whitehead didn't make his film debut until 1986 when he appeared in Back To School as Dr Philip Barbay, dean of the business school at Grand Lakes University and the boyfriend of literature professor Diane Turner (played by Sally Kellerman).

In an interview in 2017, Whitehead said his most farcical roles were the ones he enjoys the most.

He said: 'Everybody says [they] are difficult to do, but it depends. You either have a knack for it or you don’t.'

He continued: 'I think it is hard for some people. I found it not so difficult. I don’t know. I just seemed to respond to it.'

When asked how he would sum up his life and career in one word, Whitehead mused: 'Serendipitous!'

Whitehead is survived by his son Charles and daughter Alex.

From information in The Hollywood Reporter and The Daily Mail.

Photo: Paxton Whitehead. © 1972 Frank Lennon for The Toronto Star.