The ballad of Burl Ives Award-winning actor and singer loved by millions RETROSPECTIVE

April 15, 1995|By Burt A. Folkart | Burt A. Folkart,Los Angeles Times

Burl Ives was a beloved balladeer who sang so convincingly of being a Wayfaring Stranger that he instead became a longtime friend.

The rotund folk singer, Academy Award-winning actor and concert hall artist, once called by poet Carl Sandburg "the mightiest ballad singer of this or any other century," was 85 when he died yesterday. He had a history of circulatory problems and congestive heart failure.

Last summer, doctors discovered that he also was suffering from mouth cancer and had undergone "a number of little surgeries in the last few months," said Marjorie Schicktanz Ashley, his longtime agent. He died at home, in Anacortes, Wash.

His wife, Dorothy, and three of their four children were with the troubadour, who popularized "Blue Tail Fly," "Big Rock Candy Mountain," "Foggy Dew" and "On Top of Old Smoky."

Mr. Ives had his feet in several camps, including the Broadway stage and the Hollywood sound set, where he came to epitomize such Southern patriarchs as Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," a role he dismissed as "definitely not to type."

He had yielded little to old age, maintaining his imposing girth, trade mark goatee, sparkling eyes, commanding voice and flowing white hair into his 80s. But he did restrict his performances, appearing most recently as a designated envoy for the Kennedy Center's "Imagination Celebration" festivals, aimed at acquainting children with the arts.

In the late 1930s, friends got him a part in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "The Boys from Syracuse," and his by now regular appearances at the Village Vanguard in New York City (a XTC birthplace of the American folk movement) resulted in his own radio show. It was on that program that he first came to be associated with his solemn signature ballad, "The Wayfarin' Stranger."

He recorded dozens of ballads for Decca and Columbia, which continued to re-issue them decades later, and wrote "Wayfaring Stranger," his autobiography.

On March 24, 1955, Mr. Ives created the role of Big Daddy on Broadway, supposedly landing the part from director Elia Kazan after Mr. Ives physically subdued a nightclub heckler who complained of his "sissy songs." Mr. Kazan said he saw in Mr. Ives the commanding presence with an undertone of violence that the role required. He also starred with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the 1958 film version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Miss Taylor remembered him yesterday as a "great talent who possessed this wonderful, teddy-bear-like warmth."

In 1958, Mr. Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for "The Big Country," a story of two families feuding over water rights, and was nominated for a Grammy award. Others followed: "A Little Bitty Tear" in 1961; "Funny Way of Laughin' " in 1962; "Chim Chim Cheree" in 1964; and the children's album "America Sings" in 1974.

With the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary and others, he was seen regularly in concert or on national television. Like those other groups, he frequently crossed over into country and Western music, scoring successes on both recording charts.

He took some TV roles: as the most mature of three individualistic attorneys in the 1969 series "The Lawyers"; as the richest man in the world in "O.K. Crackerby," 1965-1966; as a regular guest on the long-running "The Perry Como Show," 1948-1963; and as Justin in the classic "Roots." He was also singer/narrator of the 1962 television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," a Christmas chestnut.

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