Paxton Whitehead, Actor Who Found Humor in the Stodgy, Dies at 85

Paxton Whitehead, a comic actor who earned a Tony nomination for his role in a revival of “Camelot” and played the starchiest of stuffed shirts in films like the Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School” and on hit 1990s sitcoms like “Friends” and “Mad About You,” died on Friday in Arlington, Va. He was 85.

His daughter, Alex Whitehead-Gordon, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was complications of a fall.

Mr. Whitehead, an Englishman with a modulated baritone voice, often coaxed humor from his sharp features and dignified bearing. His comic characters typically displayed subtly exaggerated versions of his own traits, which he executed with seeming ease.

“He couldn’t help but be funny,” the critic Terry Doran wrote in The Buffalo News in 1997 of Mr. Whitehead’s time at the George Bernard Shaw Festival in Ontario, adding: “He didn’t sweat buckets striving to make us laugh. He just was amusing. It came naturally.”

For Mr. Whitehead, finding the comedy was the key that unlocked a role.

“You always have to find the core of humor in a character — at least I like to, the same way some people will say, ‘I like to find the good in him, even though he is a villain,’” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1997.

One such character was Philip Barbay, the uptight dean of a business school and the nemesis of Thornton Melon, Mr. Dangerfield’s character, in “Back to School” (1986). Melon, a crass but successful businessman, comes to Grand Lakes University to visit his struggling son and winds up enrolling at the school after making a sizable donation.

Barbay hates Melon on sight and does his best to get him expelled, to little effect. Early in the movie he and his girlfriend, Diane, a literature professor played by Sally Kellerman, see Melon buying books for students at the university bookstore, and Barbay describes him as “the world’s oldest living freshman, and the walking epitome of the decline in modern education.”

Melon goes on to disrupt Barbay’s class and date Diane.

Mr. Whitehead infused Barbay with some pathos — the character seemed unable to keep himself from being a killjoy — which added another layer to the humor. While out with the free-spirited, poetry-loving Diane, Barbay proposes that they take their relationship to the next level through “a merger,” adding that they would become “incorporated, if you will.”

Mr. Whitehead’s stodgy figure in “Back to School” was the archetype for many of his later sitcom roles. He played a stuffy neighbor on “Mad About You,” a stuffy boss on “Friends” and the stuffy headmaster of a prestigious school on “Frasier.”

He was also a prolific theater actor. He appeared in more than a dozen Broadway productions, including the revue “Beyond the Fringe” (1962-64) and the 1980 revival of “Camelot,” in which his portrayal of King Pellinore earned him a Tony nomination for best featured actor in a musical. He played Sherlock Holmes opposite Glenn Close in “The Crucifer of Blood,” which ran for 236 performances at the Helen Hayes Theater in 1978 and 1979.

Mr. Whitehead’s roles, especially onstage, were not always comic. One departure was his portrayal of the ambition-crazed lead in a well-reviewed production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” at the Old Globe in San Diego in 1985.

“Comedy, tragedy, pathos, spectacle — everything is swept along before the raging kinetic power of this Richard,” the theater critic Welton Jones wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1985.

Francis Edward Paxton Whitehead was born in Kent, England, on Oct. 17, 1937. His father, Charles, was a lawyer, and his mother, Louise (Hunt) Whitehead, was a homemaker. His daughter said that his family and friends had called him Paxton since he was a child.

He graduated from the Rugby School in Warwickshire before studying acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. His early work was with touring companies, sometimes performing a new play every week. In the late 1950s he earned a stint with the New Shakespeare Memorial Theater, which is now called the Royal Shakespeare Theater and is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“But I was the lowest of lows,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, and after playing Shakespearean extras for a while, he decided to move to New York City. (His mother was American, so he was allowed to work in the States.)

His Broadway career soon took off, and it continued into recent decades. He appeared in the original productions of the comedies “Noises Off” (1983-85) and “Lettice and Lovage” (1990) and in revivals of “My Fair Lady” (1993), as Colonel Pickering and later Henry Higgins, and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (2011), as the Rev. Canon Chasuble.

In 1967, Mr. Whitehead became the artistic director of the Shaw Festival. He produced, acted in or directed most of Shaw’s plays, attracting actors like Jessica Tandy to the festival’s productions, before deciding to return to acting in 1977.

His other films include “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986), which starred Whoopi Goldberg; “Baby Boom” (1987) which starred Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard; and “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993), which starred Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. His other television appearances include “Murder, She Wrote,” “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “The West Wing,” “Hart to Hart” and “Caroline in the City.”

His marriage to the actress Patricia Gage ended in divorce in 1986. The next year he married Katherine Robertson, who died in 2009.

In addition to his daughter, with whom he lived in Arlington, he is survived by a son, Charles; a stepdaughter from his first marriage, Heather Whitehead; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Whitehead told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1986 that he usually preferred to act in comedy, because “it interests me more, and actually I take it a great deal more seriously than I do tragedy.”

“The last time I did a tragic role,” he added, “they laughed.”

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