Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Richard Libertini, comedic character actor

Actor Richard Libertini, the bearded actor best known for his comedic work in such films as The In-Laws, All Of Me, and Fletch, died on January 7 at age 82 after a two-year battle against cancer.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Libertini was a graduate of Emerson College. After graduation, he went on to join Second City in 1959, serving as part of the Main Stage ensemble alongside Jack Burns, Del Close, MacIntyre Dixon, Dick Schaal, and Paul Sills, among others. Libertini and Dixon, who were also part of Second City’s Compass Players, soon joined with fellow Player Linda Segal to form their own avant-garde comedy act called Stewed Prunes.

Inspired by vaudeville and silent movies, Stewed Prunes’ act was described in a 1961 Columbia Daily Spectator review as “a lively, busy, often daffy show” with material ranging “from an apparent comment on mechanized society, including a puppet-y sort of patriotism, to a satire, though not really a ridicule, of [Ingmar] Bergman’s Seventh Seal.” Despite—or possibly because of—offering both highbrow premises as well as slapstick comedy, Stewed Prunes’ success proved decidedly limited until one evening in 1961, when they lucked into a rave review by a New York Times critic who happened to be working on a story about coffeehouses.

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“There were three people in the audience, and the Fire Department was threatening to close the place,” Libertini told the Times in 1982. “But the critic, Arthur Gelb, saw us and wrote that people should be knocking the doors down trying to get in.”

Although their increased profile led them to being booked on The Ed Sullivan Show, Stewed Prunes never really expanded beyond cult status, but Libertini and Dixon continued to work together. Among other shared projects, they were both part of the original cast of The Mad Show, the 1966 off-Broadway musical based on Mad Magazine, and as recently as 2008 revived Stewed Prunes for a performance at an Emerson College alumni event.

Libertini worked in the theater on several occasions over the course of his career, most notably as Father Drobney in the original 1966 production of Woody Allen’s play Don’t Drink the Water, a role which he reprised in the 1969 film version. (His last stage work was also an Allen play, 2011’s Relatively Speaking.) Having made his motion picture debut the previous year in The Night They Raided Minsky’s—an early directorial effort by William Friedkin—Libertini was able to keep the momentum going in 1970, appearing in The Out Of Towners and Catch-22. He also made a memorable appearance in a Mary Tyler Moore episode the following year, playing a character with an equally memorable name: Big Chicken.

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By the mid-’70s, Libertini had begun turning up all over the TV landscape, appearing variously in episodes of The Jeffersons, Quincy, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Charlie’s Angels, Baretta, Good Times, The Bionic Woman, The Bob Newhart Show, and Barney Miller, along with a particularly memorable arc during the first season of Soap as The Godfather. He also continued to appear in films, including one of the most critically-adored motion pictures of 1978, Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven, but it wasn’t until the following year that his movie career took off in a big way thanks to The In-Laws.

When it came to securing the role of General Garcia, it probably didn’t hurt Libertini’s chances that one of the film’s two leads was fellow Second City alumnus Alan Arkin, who’d directed Libertini a few years earlier in the film Fire Sale. But Libertini’s performance instantly turned him into a go-to character actor for comedic roles. During the ’80s, he worked with Robin Williams (Popeye), Burt Reynolds (Sharky’s Machine, Best Friends), and the Canadian comedy trifecta of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, and Eugene Levy (Going Berserk). In 1984, Libertini played the perpetually confused mystic Prahka Lasa alongside Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin in All of Me.

In addition, Libertini apparently had a pleasant enough experience working with Chevy Chase in Deal Of The Century—which re-teamed him with William Friedkin—to work with him again as perpetually harried editor Frank Walker in Fletch and Fletch Lives.

While his film career slowed down as he entered the ’90s, Libertini nonetheless secured roles in a number of high-profile films, including The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Awakenings, and Nell. Meanwhile, he regularly secured TV roles, although he had limited luck in his efforts to find a full-time gig: Of the series in which he was a regular, 1988’s Family Man lasted seven episodes, 1990’s The Fanelli Boys went for 19, and Pacific Station wrapped up at 13.

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Fortunately, this had no discernible impact on his ability to pull high-profile guest spots, including appearances on Murphy Brown, L.A. Law, Chicago Hope, Murder, She Wrote, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Law and Order, and Supernatural. In addition, Libertini built a career as a voice actor, playing Dijon on DuckTales, Wally Llama on Animaniacs, and Talleyrand on Pinky and the Brain. And, despite his cancer, he continued to work in front of the camera until recently, turning up in two episodes of NBC’s Aquarius.

Per Libertini’s obituary, “he is survived by his son Richard, a musician, sister Alice Langone, brother Albert, brother-in-law Mike Langone, sister-in-law Catherine Dillon, cousin Mario Libertini of Abruzzi, Italy, cousin Joe DiTuillio, beloved nieces and nephews, former wife and friend Melinda Dillon, and many true and great friends.”

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