His fast, fiery eyes; his large frame, his impossibly dexterous face; his charismatic intensity — actor G. Valmont Thomas has been a Northwest audience favorite for decades, in roles from Falstaff at Oregon Shakespeare Festival to a local-legend performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show” at Empty Space to a troubled actor in Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” at Intiman.
Thomas, age 58, died on the morning of Dec. 18 after four days in hospice care in Ashland, Oregon.
He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2013, but kept acting and gave his final performance as the irreverent, larger-than-life, mortality-minded Falstaff at Oregon Shakespeare Festival on July 8.
That day, he pulled off the famed actors’ “hat trick,” playing Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor,” and both parts of “Henry IV.”
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“He was so, so proud of that,” said friend Patricia Bonnell, who first met Thomas around the Western Washington University theater scene. “He said: ‘Do you know how rare it is to play Falstaff in all three Shakespeares? Let alone a black actor as Falstaff in all three Shakespeares?’ He worked so, so hard for that role.”
But after the opening performance of “Henry IV, Part Two,” she said, “his body said, ‘okay, I can’t do this anymore.’ ”
Thomas spent years shuttling between roles in Seattle and Ashland (where he appeared in 14 Oregon Shakespeare Festival seasons), but after his diagnosis, Thomas made Ashland his final home. Bonnell started a gofundme fundraising campaign to help Thomas cover medical bills for his cancer treatments. She saw almost all of his performances. Despite his physical and emotional intensity, she said, “he was such a generous actor. He could certainly take the focus, but he could give the focus to another actor. He was such an incredible listener.”
Thomas was born in Germany to a military family and moved around the country before attending high school in Tacoma. And he was, by all accounts, a high-octane personality both on and off stage.
Local actor Eric Ray Anderson remembers meeting him in 1977 at the first rehearsal for a Tacoma production of “Carousel” when Thomas was in his senior year at Wilson High School and Anderson was a freshman at University of Puget Sound.
Actors were standing around, waiting for someone to unlock the doors for the first rehearsal. “Without knowing me at all, he spotted me, picked me up, and carried me around for awhile,” Anderson said. “He was incredibly full of intensity and energy.”
They stayed friends. “That show, like some shows,” Anderson said, “was a real artistic failure but a great social triumph.”
Both Bonnell and Anderson confirmed said that Thomas was surrounded by loved ones and passed peacefully.
“For those of us who knew him, the idea that he was ‘at peace’ has greater impact than that boilerplate phrase implies,” Anderson said. “He was always on a super-intense roller coaster as a person and as an artist, and the fact that he really did end up peaceful in the end was really good to hear.”
Memorials for Thomas are currently being planned for both Ashland and Seattle.