Laurence "Larry" O'Dwyer, who delighted Center Stage audiences with his theatrical irreverence and memorable performances, died of cancer Feb. 28 at his home in Knox City, Texas. The former Mount Vernon resident was 77.
A local favorite, he was often greeted with applause when he stepped on a stage. He was the 2009 recipient of a Helen Hayes Award for his role in "The Fantasticks." He was recalled for his eye-catching costumes and the red tennis shoes he wore in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"[His] range was head-spinning," said Irene Lewis, the former artistic director at Center Stage, who lives in New York. She said patrons she met on the street would constantly ask her whether Mr. O'Dwyer, an audience favorite, was going to be in the next show.
"They loved him. It was a major talent. They knew it was real acting," Ms. Lewis said. "It wasn't just that he was warm and accessible."
He studied at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and was chairman of the theater department at Bennington College in Vermont in the 1970s. Various sources give his birthplace as Washington, D.C., or Maryland.
"Nobody really knows where he was born," said Rick Tankersley, his partner for 36 years, who lives in Knox City.
Jac Alder, a founder of Theatre Three in Dallas, became Mr. O'Dwyer's friend and professional associate 52 years ago.
"He had a dark childhood and was left entirely to his own devices because both his parents worked," said Mr. Alder, who lives in Dallas. "In the evenings he was alone because his parents were alcoholics. In so many ways, he was a self-invented creature who resisted authority because it seemed threatening. He had this incredible sense of anarchy."
Mr. O'Dwyer became a specialist in the French playwright Moliere and performed his plays in Texas. He was cast in a Moliere work, "Don Juan," at Center Stage by Ms. Lewis, who subsequently placed him in many of her productions.
"I'm blinded when it comes to Irene," he said in a 2002 Baltimore Sun article. "I have a healthy fear of directors who praise actors too much because it can be confusing. Irene doesn't approve and she doesn't disapprove. She says things like, 'There's more of an edge when you do it like this.' She leads us, but she wants us to find the answers ourselves, so we can function on our own."
Mr. O'Dwyer, who worked in Los Angeles and was a founding member of Dallas' Theatre Three, settled on St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon in 2009. He was then named a Center Stage associate artist.
"This was a fearless man in the rehearsal hall. Absolutely fearless," Ms. Lewis said, adding that he had had offers from Hollywood but remained loyal to the stage.
"He ran from notoriety," Ms. Lewis said. "He ran from ever becoming famous."
Ms. Lewis said she first cast Mr. O'Dwyer at Center Stage, without an audition, in "Don Juan," on the advice of actress Pamela Payton-Wright.
"I had never cast anyone sight-unseen, but Pam said I should do it. That's how Larry came to Center Stage," she said.
One of Mr. O'Dwyer's most memorable Center Stage roles was as Puck in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a role typically played by young actors or actresses.
"Larry understood Puck, and he didn't make him cute," Ms. Lewis said.
In 2009, with about three days' notice, he took on a role in Arena Stage's production of "The Fantasticks" in Washington. For this he won the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding supporting actor.
"After a recent performance, some audience members on a Metro train recognized O'Dwyer and gave him a round of applause," a 2009 Washington Post article said. "That jolted him out of a reverie, he says, and he realized he'd missed his stop."
The article described him as being "a stickler about diction, which, like grammar and diagraming sentences, doesn't seem to be taught anymore."
At Center Stage, he also performed in "The Voysey Inheritance," "Lady Windermere's Fan," "Mary Stuart," "The Winter's Tale," "The Investigation," "She Stoops to Conquer," "The Hostage," "An Ideal Husband," "Mrs. Warren's Profession," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "Romeo & Juliet" and "Travels with My Aunt."
"I've been given the gift of comedy, but I'm a very dark person," he said in 2009. "The stage is so important to me because I'm happy there."
A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. March 24 at Theatre Three in Dallas.
Mr. O'Dwyer's partner, Mr. Tankersley, said there were no other close survivors.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun