R.I.P. Dan Von Bargen (Belated)

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Very saddened just now to Google somebody I admired only to learn that he died eight months ago. Character actor Dan Von Bargen passed away back in March. He was one of several top flight actors (like Richard Jenkins, George Martin, Peter Gerety and others) I had the privilege of watching and learning from during my days at Trinity Rep Conservatory (and in my earlier years as a high school student being bussed to productions at Trinity Rep). Von Bargen was someone whose acting EVERYBODY admired. I’ll never forget a moment in one play (I wish to hell I could remember which one) where he was a businessman — he developed this great business of rolling a scotch glass back and forth in the palms of his hands for the character that has always stuck with me. I can see it in my head right now. I’ve been knocking the theatre a lot lately but some moments, often seemingly unimportant ones, can stick with you like that, like visual poetry. And believe you me I thought I was cock of the walk when Von Bargen was effusive in his praise of my performance as “Shooter” in Sam Shepard’s Action, and then came to see it a second time. (Although that may well have been on behalf of the highly fetching 22-year old female director who had a way of making every man within half a mile walk into walls and off of balconies).

He was REALLY castable, with a somewhat piggy face and a pushed in nose, combined with a breathy, insuating voice and extremely intelligent, almost malevolent, eyes that made him perfect for pugnacious military men and cops, businessmen, etc. He knew this about himself, and he went with it. You can’t play your instrument without knowing all the stops and he knew ’em. (Trinity’s Artistic Director Adrian Hall seemed to favor such actors. As I recall the company was cast ENTIRELY with unpretty but highly excellent character actors). Anyway—

A big break for Von Bargen happened when he played a Hawkish general in the original production of Larry Gelbart’s Mastergate at nearby A.R.T. and then it moved to Broadway. While he’d had film and tv roles before, they began to get more prominent. Bit parts in things like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Shadows and Fog (1991) then turned into bigger things like major roles in Basic Instinct (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), Broken Arrow (1996) and a nice cameo in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). He also had recurring television roles like Mr. Kruger on Seinfeld and Commandant Spangler in Malcolm in the Middle.

What I did not know is that in recent years he had had health problems. Diabetes had resulted in the amputation of a leg and the projected amputation of toes on the remaining foot. He attempted suicide in 2012 (a fact I had not heard). And in March he passed away, I’m assuming of his illness.

I’m sad he’s gone, but all I can say is, there’s lot of film of him. You should check out his work. Even though he played a lot of mean characters, he was really a very nice guy.

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