Gene Barry

Gene Barry obituary in “The Independent” in 2010.

For any regular television viewer in the 1960s and 70s, the elegant actor Gene Barry, who has died aged 90, was inescapable. Most prominent was his portrayal of the Los Angeles police captain Amos Burke in 81 episodes of Burke’s Law (1963-66). No ordinary cop, Burke was an immaculately dressed, jet-setting millionaire bachelor who left his Beverly Hills mansion in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce to investigate a murder. Barry as Burke, a wisecracking, sophisticated ladies’ man, was the nearest thing on TV to Cary Grant.

Each episode – bursting with Hollywood guest stars, one of whom was revealed as a murderer – allowed Burke to deliver an aphorism such as “never drink martinis with beautiful suspects: Burke’s Law”, or “never ask a question unless you already know the answer. Burke’s Law”.

Before playing Burke, Barry had triumphed in the western TV series Bat Masterson (1958-61). The opening song says it all: “Back when the west was very young, there lived a man named Masterson. He wore a cane and derby hat … A man of steel, the story says, but women’s eyes all glanced his way. A gambler’s game he always won. His name was Bat. Bat Masterson!” Stylishly dressed in a black derby, fancy waistcoat and jacket, and preferring to use his gilt-tipped cane rather than a gun to defend himself, Barry played the western hero with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “The costume dictated my performance,” Barry remarked. “It changed my life. Every role I’ve done since has been a guy who looked good in clothes.”

Despite coming so early on in his long career in films, TV and stage, Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law were his greatest successes, though almost two decades later, Barry, still the dandy, almost topped them with his performance as the gay owner of a drag nightclub in the Broadwaymusical La Cage aux Folles (1983).

Barry was born Eugene Klass into a Russian-Jewish family in New York. His parents, who worked in the jewellery trade, sent him for singing and violin lessons as a child. While attending high school in Brooklyn, the young Eugene won a singing contest and consequently a scholarship to the Chatham Square school of music in Manhattan.

Changing his last name to Barry, in homage to his idol, John Barrymore, he began his career as a singer in leading roles in Broadway operettas, using his rich baritone in a revival of Sigmund Romberg’s New Moon (1942); in Rosalinda (1942-43), an English-language version of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus; and in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (1943-44). He met his future wife, Betty, during rehearsals for Catherine Was Great (1944-45), written by and starring Mae West (Betty was fired before the opening night as West could not tolerate another blonde in her show).

After being offered a contract by Paramount, Barry left New York for Hollywood, where he had leading roles in 14 movies, bringing as much charm as he could to rather dull roles. Many of his films were products of cold war paranoia. In his debut feature, the low-budget thriller Atomic City (1952), Barry is a nuclear physicist whose young son is kidnapped by Russian agents who demand the secrets of the H-bomb as ransom. Evil Martians attacking the Earth were, more or less, surrogates for the Soviet Union in the producer George Pal’s impressive The War of the Worlds (1953), an updating of HG Wells’s novel to contemporary California. Intermittently bespectacled – always a Hollywood signifier of intelligence – Barry was again the hero scientist who survives to see the defeat of the godless enemy, mainly through prayer. His final part was to be in the 2005 remake.

In Edward Dmytryk’s Soldier of Fortune (1955), Barry had the thankless role of a photojournalist held prisoner and tortured in China, waiting to be rescued by Clark Gable. The main interest in Sam Fuller’s simplistic China Gate (1957) is the racist character played by Barry, an American explosives expert helping the French defeat the Chinese communists. In a studio backlot cheapie, Hong Kong Confidential (1958), he played a US spy, posing as a nightclub singer, sent to rescue a kidnapped Arab prince from the Russkies. Barry also appeared in two minor Technicolor musicals, as a saloon owner in Those Redheads from Seattle (1953) and as a stereotypical Latin lover in Red Garters (1954). His last film, before working almost exclusively on TV, was as a tough treasury agent who proved to be the nemesis of the moonshine trader Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road (1958).

After his long stint on Burke’s Law, Barry played another debonair millionaire in 44 episodes of The Name of the Game (1968-71). This time, he was a magazine owner. Many years later, Barry said regretfully: “I have not been able to play just an ordinary human being … a man who is not the elegant head of an industry. I didn’t like it much – the fact that I trapped myself or got entrapped in that type of performance.”

He gave variations of “that type of performance” in scores of TV roles over the next 30 years, including appearances in Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels and The Twilight Zone, plus a reincarnation of Captain Burke in Burke’s Law (1994), now a widower working with his detective son.

However, Barry was highly praised for his creation of Georges in the Jerry Herman musical La Cage aux Folles in 1983. As the suave partner of the flamboyant drag queen Albin (George Hearn), Barry was nominated for a Tony. He had the less showy part but brought realism and humanity to the proceedings, and delivered two nostalgic songs. “I was not playing a homosexual. I was playing a person who cares deeply about another person,” he recalled. “I didn’t camp him up, and that’s what the gay community loved. I played him sensitively, caringly.”

Barry was almost fired during rehearsals, but, finally, the director, Arthur Laurents, asked him to look into Hearn’s eyes more often to convey a greater sense of tender affection and to introduce the club acts with more panache.

Barry, whose wife of almost 60 years died in 2003, is survived by two sons and a daughter.

• Gene Barry (Eugene Klass), actor; born 14 June 1919; died 9 December 2009

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *