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OSF's McCallum was 'an actor's actor'

Longtime thespian remembered fondly
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Sandy McCallum used this September 2000 photo on his CD, “Jaw Jabberin’ with Shakespeare,” a hillbilly version of “King Lear.”
 Posted: 2:00 AM October 29, 2008

Friends this week remembered Sandy McCallum as an actor's actor, a consummate craftsman and a generous colleague and friend. McCallum, 81, died Friday.

McCallum retired from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's acting company in 2005 due to poor health after half a century of acting. He is survived by his wife, Joy, three sons, one daughter, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"Sandy was the best," said OSF actor Robert Vincent Frank. "Whatever people have in their heart and memory, the moment they loved the most, that's how he'd like to be remembered."

McCallum worked with Tyrone Guthrie, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and other theater greats. He played Polonius in "Hamlet," Jonathan Coffin in "The Night of the Iguana,'' Stephano in "The Tempest," the stage manager in "Our Town," Capt. Shotover in "Heartbreak House," Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and other top character parts. At OSF he directed "The Taming of the Shrew" and "The House of Blue Leaves."

He once said he was proud of never missing a performance in 50 years. Once able to memorize a lead role in 48 hours, he said before his retirement he was starting to have trouble remembering lines. In recent years he wrote and recorded a series of comedy CDs called "Jaw Jabberin' With Shakespeare" that featured hillbilly-like readings of the Bard.

McCallum was directing "Of Mice and Men" in San Diego when OSF Artistic Director Jerry Turner lured him to Ashland in 1989. Frank first saw him act that year in the OSF's production of "And a Nightingale Sang ... "

"He was a real, true, honest-to-goodness character man," Frank said.

McCallum grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the 1930s and worked as a Canadian Air Force meteorologist in World War II. After the war, he worked in radio and at a small TV station where he was a weatherman and did kiddie shows.

He joined a community theater in Coaldale, Alberta, Canada. In 1963, Sir Tyrone Guthrie asked him to join the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Minn., the first major regional theater in the nation.

McCallum had a rich voice to go with a small frame.

"It's not what it used to be," he said of the theater in a 2005 story prompted by his retirement. "It's big business. It's too splendiferous. You lose the common touch."

Nor did he have a grand view of himself.

"I can count on two hands the times I would have paid 50 bucks to see me work," he said.

OSF actor Tony DeBruno, who was McCallum's friend for many years, last saw him about six weeks ago as he battled several serious health problems in a nursing home. DeBruno said it's a testament to McCallum that actors were going to see him until the week before he died.


"He was sharp as a tack," he said. "He still made us laugh."

DeBruno said McCallum was the reason he was hired at OSF. He'd read for a part in a play McCallum was directing.

"Who was the bald guy?" then-OSF Artistic Director Jerry Turner asked McCallum.

"Hire that guy next year," McCallum said. "I need him."

DeBruno said McCallum never quit trying to find new ways to make a part, and a play, better — even late in a long run.

He would approach other actors with suggestions, saying, "Take this or leave it, but I had an idea for that scene ... ."

"Nine times out of 10 it was wonderful," DeBruno said.

Frank thought of McCallum as a mentor.

"I consider myself a character actor," he said. "When I was cast as the Fool in 'King Lear' I went to him for advice. He'd played it in four other productions. Smart actors go to the best.

"He knew what worked and what didn't. He said you have to love the king beyond everything, and you have to decide for yourself when you know he's really mad.

"He was very sweet. It's such a great thing he could pass it on like that."

"He loved acting," DeBruno said. "He told Jerry, 'I want to come here and work and retire and die.

"He was an actor's actor."


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