Brent Carver, versatile Tony-winning actor, dies at 68

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Brent Carver, versatile Tony-winning actor, dies at 68
Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello in the play “Parade,” with music by Jason Robert Brown and directed by Harold Prince, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, Nov. 8, 1998. Brown is collaborating with Prince on a revue celebrating the director and producer’s storied Broadway career. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Anita Gates

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Brent Carver, a sensitive, soft-spoken yet nakedly emotional Canadian actor and singer who won a Tony Award for his starring role in the 1993 musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” died Tuesday at his home in Cranbrook, British Columbia. He was 68.

The death was announced by his family. No cause was given.

In his review of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” for The New York Times Frank Rich praised Carver's portrayal of Molina, a gay window dresser who escapes the psychological horrors of a Latin American prison through movie-musical fantasies (performed by Chita Rivera), and “arrives at his own heroic definition of masculinity.” Carver, Rich wrote, was “riveting.”

J. Kelly Nestruck, chief theater critic for The Globe and Mail, the Canadian newspaper, called Carver “an utterly compelling, otherworldly performer.” The Washington Post called his Molina — a role he also played in London and Toronto — a “star-making performance.”

“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a Kander and Ebb musical with a book by Terrence McNally, based on the Oscar-winning 1985 movie and directed by Harold Prince, may have been Carver’s Broadway debut, but he already had an impressive theater career in Canada. He spent a number of seasons at the Stratford Theater Festival in Ontario; there and elsewhere in Canada, his roles were legion.

From the 1980s onward, he played tragic heroes like Hamlet and Cyrano; tough guys like Pontius Pilate (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) and the Pirate King (“The Pirates of Penzance”); sorcerers and spirits like Merlin (“Camelot”), Gandalf (“Lord of the Rings”) and Ariel (“The Tempest”); and even a hardworking milkman, as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Carver never agreed with the concept of actors losing themselves in a role; for him, it was just the opposite. “If all things are equal, you are allowed to be more of yourself onstage than off it,” he told The Times in 1993. “You allow that — those emotions you wouldn’t or couldn’t get in touch with in ordinary life.”

Brent Christopher Carver was born on Nov. 17, 1951, in Cranbrook, a small city near the Rocky Mountains southwest of Calgary. He was the third of seven children of Kenneth Carver, who drove a lumber truck, and Lois (Wills) Carver, who sometimes worked as a waitress or a clerk.

As a little boy, Brent and his father, who played guitar, often sang together. Brent’s stage debut was as the lead in a fifth-grade production of “Dick Whittington and His Cat.” He studied drama at the University of British Columbia for three years.

When he left school in 1972, he made his stage debut as a swing cast member at the Vancouver Arts Club Theater in “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” When he made his Stratford debut, in 1980, it was as Edmund Tyrone, the tubercular son in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Carver’s relatively few movies included “Shadow Dancing” (1988), a thriller starring Christopher Plummer; “Millennium” (1989), a science fiction drama with Kris Kristofferson; and “The Event” (2003), about assisted suicide among New Yorkers with AIDS, with Olympia Dukakis and Parker Posey.

His television roles included Ichabod Crane in a 1999 production of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Leonardo da Vinci in “Leonardo: A Dream of Flight” (2002) and the title role in the short-lived Canadian series “Leo and Me” (1977-78). His co-star was an unknown teenage actor, Michael J. Fox.

He also received glowing notices for his solo cabaret show.

Carver returned to Broadway three times: in “King Lear” (2004) as Edgar, in “Romeo and Juliet” (2013) as Friar Lawrence, but most notably in “Parade” (1998), as Leo Frank, the doomed factory manager wrongly convicted in 1913 of an adolescent girl’s murder. That performance brought him his second Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award for best actor in a musical.

But his most treasured prize may have been his Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in theater in 2014. After the ceremony, he was asked what advice he would give to young performers. He talked a bit about the fear of taking on a new project and advised them to say, “I need to do this, and grace will take over.”

After a six-year break from Stratford — for decades, he lived much of the year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario — he returned in 2017. His final festival roles were Feste the clown in “Twelfth Night” — when Kevin Tierney of The Montreal Gazette reviewed the play, he referred to Carver as a “national treasure”— and Rowley the servant in “The School for Scandal.”

Carver never married. He is survived by two brothers, Randy and Shawn, and two sisters, Vicki Stanley and Frankie Reekie.

He was a devoted theatergoer as well as an untiring performer. “I like being in a theater, like in a theater or even what someone calls a theater,” he told a Toronto Star writer interviewing him in a cafe in 2016. Then he gestured around the room. “If someone calls this a performance space, I’d be like, ‘Here we go!’”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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