Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsObituaries

Donald L. Symington, Broadway actor

TelevisionColleges and UniversitiesRentalsWoody Allen

Donald L. Symington, a career feature actor whose classic patrician good looks earned him roles on Broadway and in movies, television, soap operas and regional theaters, died Wednesday of Parkinson's disease at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The West Towson resident, who also maintained a home in New York City, was 88.

"Donald had a great reputation and people liked working with him, including directors like Woody Allen," said Donald Hicken, head of theater at the Baltimore School for the Arts and veteran director at Everyman Theatre.

"He was an actor's actor and a great man of the theater," said Mr. Hicken, who added, "And he was a real gentleman in every sense of the word. He was a loving and kind man."

A member of one of Maryland's oldest and most distinguished families, Donald Leith Symington was born in Baltimore. He was the son of John Fife "Jack" Symington Sr., a prominent banker and sportsman, and Arabella Hambleton Symington, who was active in music and art circles.

Mr. Symington was raised at Tallwood, his family's estate in the Green Spring Valley horse country. As a student at Gilman School, he made his first appearance on stage as the keeper of an insane asylum in "The Tavern," and later became president of the Gilman Drama Association.

He explained to a Bedford Record newspaper reporter in Bedford, N.Y., in a 1994 interview that he fell under the spell of the theater in 1932, when he attended a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" starring Katharine Cornell and Raymond Massey.

"It was all grand to me," he said. His mother fueled her son's theatrical interests by taking him regularly to New York to Broadway and the opera.

When he was 16, he climbed fire escapes to eavesdrop on Baltimore theater rehearsal halls. And after spending $2.50 for a winning Irish Sweepstakes ticket, which netted him $1,000, he was able to indulge in a theater trip to New York City.

"I won a sweepstakes prize and treated myself to a spree at the age of 16 in New York City, which entailed five plays in three days," he told The Evening Sun in 1948. "From then on, I was sold on the theater."

After graduating from Gilman in 1943, he enrolled at Princeton University but dropped out after a year, because he was spending more time haunting the Great White Way than the college library.

After leaving college, he rented an apartment in Jackson Heights, N.Y., and began making the rounds of producers' offices. "My family was skeptical, but understanding," he said in the 1948 interview.

His break came when he landed a role in a George Abbott play, "One Shoe Off," at the Biltmore Theater. Even though it flopped, he became a member of Actors Equity.

Mr. Symington also performed in stock productions in New York and New England, while working as a clerk in a Manhattan hotel and as a traveling salesman selling combs to make ends meet.

Recalling the beginning of his career in the 1940s, Mr. Symington told Bill Hyder, a Sunday Sun TV critic and reporter, in a 1965 interview, "It was easier to get into the theater then because there was more theater."

Mr. Symington made his Baltimore debut on Nov. 27, 1948, in a Barter Theatre of Virginia production of "Papa Is All."

The next year, he met and fell in love with Leslie Paul, an actress, when the two were staff members of the Hamlet Festival Tour that performed "Hamlet" at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. They married in 1955.

Mr. Symington worked on TV in the early 1950s in such shows as "Robert Montgomery Presents," "Studio One" and "Hallmark Hall of Fame." In 1956, he went to Hollywood and worked on several TV shows, including "Climax" and "Matinee Theater."

Tiring of Hollywood, he returned to New York.

He told Mr. Hyder that he thought of himself first and foremost as a stage actor, despite the financial difficulties. "I'll starve for the theater, but I won't starve for the movies," he said.

He also toured the country with several repertory companies, playing opposite Tallulah Bankhead in "Here Today," Arlene Francis in "Janus" and Ann Sothern in "Glad Tidings."

On Broadway, he starred opposite Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in "The King and I" as Sir Edward Ramsey, the British ambassador. Other roles included performances in "Mourning Pictures" and "Murderous Angels."

Mr. Symington also performed in off-Broadway productions, including "Lady Windermere's Fan" and "Suddenly Last Summer."

He eventually returned to movies when he played Diane Keaton's father in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." Other movie credits included "Trust Me," "Spring Break," "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Hanky Panky" and "The Front."

He continued working steadily not only in commercials but also in soap operas such as "Love of Life," "The Secret Storm," "Ryan's Hope," "Search For Tomorrow," "All My Children," "Edge of Night" and "Texas."

In 1965, he performed in the Center Stage production of "Caesar and Cleopatra." Other regional theaters where Mr. Symington performed included the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., Pittsburgh Public Theater, Hartford Stage Co., Philadelphia Drama Guild and Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati.

Mr. Symington also enjoyed writing plays and theatrical adaptations of novels.

"He was very elegant when on stage because he was such a striking person. He really had such great features," recalled Mr. Hicken.

Reflecting on his long career in a 1998 interview with The Putnam County Courier, Mr. Symington said, "Like all careers, it's had its ups and downs. I've never been a star. On the stage, I am referred to as a top featured actor."

The resident of Chestnut Avenue in West Towson enjoyed attending the theater in Baltimore and showing visitors his theatrical scrapbooks and reminiscing about his career over drinks and dinner.

"He regularly attended shows at Everyman Theatre and shows that I directed there," said Mr. Hicken. "After they ended, he always wanted to meet the actors. He was so gracious and he wanted to encourage them, and they always wanted to know when Donald was coming to the theater."

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday at St. James Episcopal Church, 3100 Monkton Road, Monkton.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Symington is survived by three daughters, Betty Welsh Symington of Upperco, Margaret Fife Symington of Macon, Ga., and Leslie Leith Symington of Stavanger, Norway; a sister, Arabella Leith Symington Griswold of Monkton; and five grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading