from Next Stop, Greenwich Village, 1976
Leonard Joel Baker
January 17, 1945
Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||April 12, 1982 (aged 37)|
Hallandale, Florida, U.S.
|Awards||Tony Award for |
I Love My Wife
Leonard Joel "Lenny" Baker (January 17, 1945 – April 12, 1982) was an American actor of stage, film, and screen, best known for his Golden Globe nominated performance in the 1976 Paul Mazursky film, "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," and his 1977 Tony Award-winning performance in I Love My Wife.
Baker was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the middle child of William, who owned his own plumbing business, and Bertha (née August) Baker. He had two brothers, Alan and Malcolm, and described his upbringing as "middle-middle class."
As the middle child, he referred to himself as "the pickle in the middle" and dreamed of being in musicals. He began acting in kindergarten, where he was cast as an elephant in school, and from fourth grade on, he was "constantly" on stage, eventually becoming the vice-president of Brookline High School's dramatic society.
While his brothers followed his father into plumbing, Baker stuck to acting.
Coming out of college, Baker claimed to have offers to do theatre in New York, which he turned down out of fear of being reduced to "a spear carrier." Instead, he accepted an offer from Richard Block, the director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville ("ATL") in Kentucky, to be a journeyman, rounding out its 10 principal cast members:
...I jumped at it [the chance to join ATL]. Decided it would be much better to play bigger roles...to be a big fish in a little pond."
In September 1966, he made his acting debut, playing Tom Stark in "All the King's Men", at ATL. The following year he made Actors' Equity and earned the minimum, $125 per week (approximately $950 in 2019). He remained at ATL through May 1968.
He then went to the Center Stage in Baltimore until he made his Off Broadway debut, in 1969, in City Scene. He followed that up with three plays by Israel Horovitz at the Manhattan Theatre Club, a performance in The Year Boston Won The Pennant, at Lincoln Center, along with Summertree, The Real Inspector Hound.
In 1974, Baker went to Paris, where he performed two Israel Horovitz one-act plays: Hop Scotch and Spared. That same year, he also made his Broadway debut in The Freedom of the Theatre. In 1976, he performed with the Phoenix Company in Secret Service, Boy Meets Girl, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, andThe Merry Wives of Windsor. He would later do a season with the New York Shakespeare Festival in which he was in Henry V and Measure for Measure. However, his biggest performance would be in I Love My Wife.
Beyond Broadway, Baker would perform in other regional theater productions in Chicago, St. Louis, and his native Boston. He also spent five summers at the O'Neill Center's National Playwrights Conference and its Theatre for the Deaf, in Waterford, Connecticut, working with young playwrights. He called his time at the O'Neill Theatre his "best training," stating that watching the deaf taught him to be "so brazen with the comic use of his body."
In August 1977, Baker's Broadway contact was due to be re-negotiated. He was hesitant to commit to more than one year, stating:
At my age, it would be committing artistic suicide...I have to be able to expand myself to my outermost limits.
Film and television
At the height of his career, Baker was 6'0" and 145 pounds. He was knob-kneed and was described as a "long, lean and lanky, stringbean of a chap with the most formidable nose in entertainment since Jimmy Durante." It was often due to his physique and nose that he would get auditions, jobs and laughs. However, as a child, Baker had been self-conscious about his body, particularly his prominent nose:
There was a time when my nose bothered me. In my adolescence, I thought, "What am I stuck with here?" It seemed to me that the only thing growing on my body was my nose. I went through an awkward stage when I felt out of place. Now I'm very happy with the nose and this body and who I am."
Baker was a feminist. In 1977, during his run of I Love My Wife, he used his fame to vocally state his dissatisfaction with The Shubert Organization –– the organization running the Barrymore Theatre, where the play was being performed –– about pay equity:
And put it down too that I'm mad because the girls in our cast are getting less (money) than the boys. I find that outrageous discrimination and it really burns me.
Baker was a proponent of actors going to college, believing a "good liberal education is essential" to grounding actors in all the arts.
Little is known of Baker's romantic life. In 1976, he claimed to be "dedicated to remaining a bachelor," but alluded to serious romances with "two or three" women. Decades after his death from what was reported to be cancer, commentator David Ehrenstein said in ‘’LA Weekly’’, “Baker’s cancer had come to be known as “gay cancer,” then briefly GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency) and then finally AIDS. We didn’t have any name for it then.”
Ehrenstein theorized that because Baker was not offered a leading role in an A-list motion picture after Next Stop, Greenwich Village that meant casting directors, producers and movie studio executives believed he was gay and they shunned him because of their homophobia.
In August 1978, Baker's career began to be cut short by illness. "A serious throat ailment" caused him to him leave the cast of the pre-Broadway show, Broadway, Broadway. His final television performance, in 1979, was on Taxi, opposite Andy Kaufman. His last noted stage performance would be in March 1980, in which he reprised the one-act Horovitz plays he had performed in Paris.
He would later be diagnosed with Medullary thyroid cancer.
...poor Lenny Baker. Nobody sees him anymore. He’s up there [in his apartment] alone now. He’s dying of cancer, and the doctors can’t seem to figure out why.— Anthony Holland, Actor, 1980
Baker died on April 12, 1982 at the Community Hospital of South Broward in Hallendale, Flordia, which was close to his parents, who were living in Miami at the time. He is buried in Lindwood Memorial Park, in Randolph, Massachusetts.
- The Freedom of the City – Alvin Theatre, 1974
- Secret Service – Playhouse Theatre, 1976 – Henry Dumont
- Boy Meets Girl – Playhouse Theatre, 1976 – Robert Law
- I Love My Wife – Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1977 – Alvin
- Conerico Was Here to Stay – Fortune Theatre, 1969 – Young Man
- Summertree – Players Theatre, 1969 – Young Man
- Paradise Gardens East – Fortune Theatre, 1969 – Brother
- The Year Boston Won the Pennant – Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, 1969 – Dillinger/Peabody
- Barbary Shore – Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, 1973 – Mike Lovett
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre – Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, 1974 – Thailard/Knight of Ephesus/Boult
- The Merry Wives of Windsor – Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, 1974 – Abraham Slender
- Henry V – Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, 1976 – Dauphin
- Measure for Measure – Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, 1976 – Lucio
He was nominated for Jeff Awards –– for Best Actor in a Principal Role –– for his work in Chicago theatre.
He won the Tony Award for his performance in I Love My Wife.
His performance in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the "Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture" category.
- "Tony Legacy Search Results: I Love My Wife". The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards. Retrieved 2008-07-06.
- "Lenny Baker, award-winning actor, at age 37 after bout with cancer". The Boston Globe. Boston, Massachusetts. 13 April 1982.
- "Lenny Baker, teetering on the brink". The Boston Globe. Boston, Massachusetts. 3 September 1975.
- "Broadway Falls in Love with "Our" Lenny Baker". The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. 3 Jul 1977.
- Emory Lewis (26 Jun 1977). "Broadway's Shy Stripper". Hackensack, New Jersey: The Record.
- "4 New Permanent Players to Join Actors Theatre". The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. 28 Aug 1966.
- "Actor Took Fans on a Ride He Smoothed in Studies with Deaf". The LA Times. Los Angeles, California. 19 April 1982.
- Jean Dietrich (21 Mar 1976). "ATL's "big fish" swims to the top in films". The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky.
- "Lenny Baker Dies at 37; making acting debut at ATL". The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. 14 April 1982.
- "Lenny Baker a laugh-getter". St. Joseph's Gazette. St. Joseph, Missouri. 29 Aug 1977.
- David Ehrenstein (11 December 2003). "Death in the Afternoon". LA Weekly.
- Liz Smith (22 August 1978). "Four Ladies Lined Up in Paley Sweepstakes". Detroit, Michigan: Detroit Free Press.
- Shirley Eder (16 August 1978). "Four Ladies Lined Up in Paley Sweepstakes". Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Courant.
- John C. Mahoney (28 Mar 1980). "Israel Horowitz Works at Matrix". LA Times. Los Angeles, CA.
- "Tony Award Winner Lenny Baker Dies". Lancaster New Era. Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 13 April 1982.