John Aylward, prominent Seattle theater, ‘ER’ and ‘West Wing’ actor, dies at 75

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Editor’s note: Misha Berson was The Seattle Times theater critic from 1991 to 2016. Here, she remembers quintessential Seattle actor John Aylward.

One of the first shows I saw after becoming The Seattle Times theater critic in 1991 was an uproarious version of Molière’s “The Miser” at Seattle Rep.

I knew that Seattle boasted a wealth of fine actors, and that production was proof positive. It was shock full of them. But the one who impressed me most was John Aylward.

Aylward died unexpectedly at his Capitol Hill home on May 16, of natural but as-yet undetermined causes. He was 75, and according to Mary Fields, his artist wife of 36 years, he had been feeling unwell for a while.

When I learned of his passing, his splendid turn as the title character in “The Miser” sprang to mind. In my review I called him “a cross between Archie Bunker and Charles Laughton as Quasimodo,” and wrote that Aylward attacked “the role with such verve it’s tough to hate the old coot. Scampering and preening, bellowing one minute and squeaking like a weasel the next, flinging back the skirt of his long coat like a monstrous lizard flicking his tail, he’s a magnificent hell-raiser …”

That was the first of many Aylward performances that I deeply admired. He was simply a force of nature onstage, and for more than 40 years, a quintessential Seattle actor.

The eldest child in a large Irish Catholic family, Aylward grew up on Capitol Hill and discovered acting early, in parochial school. A Garfield High School graduate, he was one of the first students accepted into a new acting program at the University of Washington that would produce many notable performers.

He made his professional debut at Seattle’s ACT Theater (co-founded by Gregory Falls, a former chair of the UW School of Drama) in the 1970s, and became an essential part of a floating ensemble of versatile, fearless young actors who helped put ACT , Empty Space and The Bathhouse on the national theater map. Loved by his peers, he performed with distinction in all those playhouses.

From the 1990s on, he juggled stage roles with a successful career in Hollywood. He seemed to pop up everywhere on-screen: in ongoing roles on “ER” and “The West Wing,” most recently in “Briarpatch” on USA Network, and in dozens of other TV series and films. But his primary residence remained in Seattle. And whenever we talked (he was a warm and witty interviewee, with an Irish gift for storytelling), Aylward made clear the Seattle stage was his first love.

Burly and balding from a young age, he never expected to be a romantic lead, and didn’t mind playing much older men — often blustery and cantankerous ones — well before he hit 40. He approached every role with gusto, as adept at comedy as he was textured and believed in dramas.

Some of my favorite performances were also some of his. He was poignantly desperate as Shelley, a hapless salesman in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” at Seattle Rep. In “Inspecting Carol” (also at the Rep), he was hilarious as a prima donna actor spouting arty nonsense in a doomed staging of “A Christmas Carol.”

“An accomplished and widely respected actor, John left an indelible mark on the Seattle theater community and on everyone he collaborated with over his long career,” Seattle Rep said in a Facebook post.

In his final Seattle curtain call, at ACT in 2015, he tore into the part of the overbearing Southern patriarch Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams classic, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In Big Daddy he found the bully, but also rare glimmers of tolerance.

He played Shakespeare’s Caesar, Miller’s salesman and, yes, Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” And no doubt many Seattle theatergoers will recall their favorite Aylward turns from the 1970s and 1980s, before my time here.

I also got to see his sensitive portrayal, at ACT Theatre, of the brilliant, tormented poet and UW professor Theodore Roethke, in the 2007 one-man play “First Class.” Like writing great poetry, acting well is always a high-wire act. And a line from Roethke seems a fitting epitaph for this actor: “What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.”

Aylward is survived by his wife, a brother and a sister, and nieces and nephews. Plans for a memorial service will be announced later.

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