As a longtime theater instructor, including six years at the University of Washington School of Drama, Jack Clay was a stickler for language. So much so that in the last years of his life, it pained him to sit in an audience.
“He had a hard time going to the theater because some actors had no idea how to work with the language in scripts,” said his daughter, Cynthia Clay. “He realized the theatrical world was changing. People didn’t have an ear for language. They often butchered it. And so the line readings he would hear in stage productions would be grating.”
But Mr. Clay’s standards weren’t just reserved for stage actors, she added.
“He was correcting my grammar up to two days before he died,” Cynthia Clay said. “Especially ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ It was a running joke.”
Mr. Clay died Sept. 2 after being diagnosed with cancer. He also had congestive heart failure, his daughter said.
He was 92.
Three years ago, Mr. Clay had a heart attack “and everything was going down after that,” she said. Still, he was living independently — going for walks, to the gym and traveling — until last July, when he moved from his Queen Anne home to an assisted-living facility.
Mr. Clay was born in Decatur, Illinois, in 1926 and graduated from Northwestern University. He and his wife, Grayce, moved to New York, where he took a stab at theater work before accepting a teaching position at Oberlin College in 1956.
He went on to teach at the University of Miami and the University of South Florida before leading the Professional Actors Training Program at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. It was a nationally-recognized program that Mr. Clay took over when he arrived at the University of Washington in 1986. He retired in 1992.
Mr. Clay was a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theater and was an expert on George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare. He taught and performed well into his 80s.
“He was a gentleman,” said Anne Stewart, the longtime general manager for production at the UW School of Drama. “He was a wonderful, wonderful man. Smart and funny and passionate about his work.
“The students were absolutely committed and passionate about him.”
Cynthia Clay remembered growing up with a father whose booming voice and diction made Texas grocery clerks ask, “Sir, where are you from?” and whose students came over for dinner and parties, or to babysit for her and her half-brother, Byron C. Howes.
“It was exciting to see them go off and have exciting careers,” Clay said of her father’s students.
They included Kathy Bates, who won an Academy Award for her role in the 1990 film “Misery”; playwright Beth Henley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Crimes of the Heart”; and actor Jeffrey Nordling, who appeared in the HBO hit “Big Little Lies.”
Television and film actor Stephen Tobolowsky (“Glee,” “Deadwood,” “Groundhog Day”) was a student of Mr. Clay’s at SMU.
“He was the real deal,” Tobolowsky wrote in an email. “A man who knew more about acting than any of us would ever know. A passionate and demanding teacher.
“Jack was knowledge,” Tobolowsky continued. “Jack taught me that to be successful in acting, there is no substitute for hard work. What sticks with me today … his courage. His dignity. The demands on his students began with his demands on himself.”
Mr. Clay’s wife, Grayce Clay, died 27 years ago. They had been married for 37 years. Mr. Clay never remarried.
“My mother was a hard act to follow,” Cynthia Clay said. “People wanted to date my dad, but he was ready to be solo.”
Mr. Clay spent the last years of his life mastering Spanish and traveling to Spain and Central and South America for a month at a time. He built a house in Granada, Nicaragua, where he would walk the streets in a linen suit and Panama hat, carrying a cane and chatting with locals.
He is survived by his daughter, who lives in Seattle; his son, who lives in North Carolina; three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The family plans to hold a memorial at one of the UW’s theaters in December, guided by instructions Mr. Clay left behind in a “Dad Gone file.”
Among Mr. Clay’s requests: “Give me a little party with food and a little Champagne to toast my departure.” “Play ‘Hit the Road, Jack.’ ” Ask people to make donations to The Jack Clay Endowed Fellowship at the UW in his memory.
And he asked that someone read Prospero’s speech from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which reads, in part:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve