SOLANA BEACH — Jonathan McMurtry has one of those recognizable faces, especially among television viewers who can see him regularly on popular sitcoms such as “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Modern Family.”
Equally impressive is that McMurtry, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, has earned the distinction of having the longest association with one theater of any stage actor in the United States.
This was accomplished during his 50-year career as associate artist with The Old Globe Theatre, where he has acted in all 37 plays written by Shakespeare. He also teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program offered by The Old Globe and the University of San Diego.
Currently, he is being honored by lending his name to The Jonathan McMurtry Actors’ Fund, which will be used to pay the salaries of professional actors at North Coast Repertory Theatre — where he has appeared in more than a dozen productions. The fund, he says, promises a better future for working actors.
“This encourages more local actors to become union members which will help them find work,” he said. “It will also bring audiences into the theater because the actors will be professionals.”
Now 75, McMurtry says the parts that come his way are fewer as he gets older.
“I played old men a lot when I was young, but I can’t play young lovers now that I’m 75,” he said, smiling. “But getting older helps me with teaching, which I like to do.”
David Ellenstein, artistic director of the North Coast Rep, has known McMurtry since he was a child. His father, the late Robert Ellenstein, and McMurtry were old friends.
“My father was my number one mentor and Jonathan was number two,” he said. “We became close in Hamlet produced by the Arizona Theatre Company in 1977, which my father directed. That was the first time we worked together and we became part of an extended family of friends and colleagues.”
Ellenstein said he is among a legion of people inspired by McMurtry because of his ability to forge a lifelong career in theater, not only in San Diego, but also throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“For a stage actor in the United States to have a career like his is really unusual,” he added. “The theater is changing all the time and the ones who stick to it are fewer and fewer. Jonathan has a sense of history having been around Sir Lawrence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud and bringing that tradition back and having the bedrock of knowledge to stand on. There aren’t too many of that breed left.”
Ellenstein explained that the idea to pay tribute to McMurtry came up initially, followed by the means to do this through an actors’ fund that would continue in perpetuity.
“Jonathan epitomizes what an actor is,” he said. “I doubt that there are many, if any, equity actors on the West Coast with more weeks worked than Jonathan McMurtry. He’s been such a treasure in San Diego.”
An event to honor McMurtry will be held on Feb. 5 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to express their gratitude to Jonathan while he is in good health so he can enjoy it,” he added.
McMurtry will participate in a reading of “King Lear” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15.
“I’m looking forward to it because I’m playing The Fool and am doing it with Ken Ruta so it will be fun,” he said. “I’ve done 20 plays with him at the Globe. I think the first time I worked with him was 1965.”
McMurtry’s awards include the KPBS 2006 Shiley Patte Lifetime in Theatre Achievement, numerous San Diego and Los Angeles Critics’ Circle Awards and the 2008 Craig Noel Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Award. Also in 2008, the city of Vista and the county of San Diego proclaimed June 30, 2008, as “Jonathan McMurtry Day.”
Theater fans that want to support professional actors by contributing to the fund can do so online at northcoastrep.org or contact Kathryn Byrd at (858) 481-2155, ext. 211 or Kathryn@northcoastrep.com