Share story

Seattle actor Clayton Corzatte, a veteran of local stages big and small, died Saturday (April 6, 2013) after a two-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 86.

Mr. Corzatte’s decades on the stage included an appearance with Katharine Hepburn, a Tony Award nomination and roles for the 5th Avenue, Seattle Repertory, Village, Intiman and ACT theaters, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Born in Alabama, Mr. Corzatte served in the U.S. Navy for two years during World War II before attending the University of Alabama, where he studied theater. He landed an acting job straight out of college with Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va.

“You could come and bring a chicken or a dozen eggs or something to get your ticket,” said his wife, Susan Corzatte, an actor also well-known to Seattle audiences.

From the Barter, Mr. Corzatte moved to the Cleveland Playhouse, where he and Susan met in 1955 while appearing in “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker.”

Her first impressions of him: “I was astonished. I just thought he was an incredible actor. We had wonderful actors at the Cleveland Playhouse at that time … and Clayton felt he learned as much from them as anything in the world.” She and Mr. Corzatte married two years later.

In 1960, he appeared as Sebastian, the twin of Hepburn’s Viola, in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn.

By then, the Corzattes were also part of New York’s APA Repertory Company, a project of the Association of Producing Artists founded by actors Ellis Rabb and Rosemary Harris. The troupe staged its first productions “way way off Broadway,” Susan Corzatte said, and slowly moved up. The couple did revolving repertory on Broadway for five years, and Mr. Corzatte won an Obie award in 1962 for his APA works, including his role as Constantin in Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

During his tenure with the APA, Mr. Corzatte accepted an invitation to join Minneapolis’ now-famed Guthrie Theater for its opening season in 1963 — a move Rabb wasn’t happy about.

Rabb told Mr. Corzatte, “For heaven’s sakes, Clayton, come back to APA,’” said Susan Corzatte, “and he did.”

His return paid off, in terms of recognition. In 1967, Mr. Corzatte was nominated for a Tony for his work in APA’s production of Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal.”

When APA folded in 1969, the Corzattes moved to Seattle with their two children, in part because the New York spotlight was losing its appeal for Mr. Corzatte. As he told KUOW radio, “I looked at what was happening with somebody who was a star in a show, playing that show for a year, and I thought: I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I want out of theater at all.”

Mr. Corzatte knew Allen Fletcher, then-artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, and joined the company.

Kurt Beattie, artistic director of ACT, recalled being knocked out by two of Mr. Corzatte’s early performances here — one as atomic scientist Edward Teller in “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and the other as Mosca, the parasitic servant of the title character in Ben Jonson’s “Volpone.”

“He was so dynamic and wonderful in those two very different roles,” Beattie said. “He made an extremely vivid impression. … I was enthralled by him.”

Beattie, who later worked with Mr. Corzatte in shows at the Rep, noted, “He was really one of the major theater actors in the country, and we were very lucky that he came to Seattle and liked it here, along with Susan, and made his home here.”

Mr. Corzatte did more than stage work; the Corzattes taught for more than a dozen years at Cornish College of the Arts, which awarded them both honorary doctorates, and Mr. Corzatte taught in the professional-acting program at the University of Washington. They also made memorable appearances in Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s locally shot 2006 cult movie, “Brand Upon the Brain!” (Mr. Corzatte had a cameo role as a resurrected paterfamilias “dried out by thirty years in a harp case.”)

Theatre Puget Sound honored the Corzattes with its Gregory Falls Sustained Achievement Award in 2000. The couple were memorably paired in local productions of “The Gin Game” (1996) and “On Golden Pond” (2006).

During the latter production, Susan Corzatte told The Seattle Times that, even on acting gigs where only one of them was hired, they traveled together.

“Clayton and I don’t go separate ways anymore,” she said. “We don’t have that much time left. People talk about theater couples who don’t stay together, but there are many who are just like us. It’s a wonderful life together.”

In 2011, Mr. Corzatte appeared in a 5th Avenue Theatre production of “Guys and Dolls.”

When the show traveled to St. Paul, Minn., he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “As long as they keep giving me work, I’ll keep showing up.”

Besides his wife, Mr. Corzatte is survived by son Christopher Corzatte and daughter Felicity Katharine Corzatte, and a sister, Robbie Corzatte Hughes.

A celebration of life is planned for May.

Michael Upchurch: