Alexander Zale, Actor on New York Stages, Dies at 89

actor Alexander Zale
Courtesy Joe Buissink

Alexander Zale

A lead in off-Broadway productions, he also played an ambassador from Afghanistan on '24' and a judge on 'Matlock.'

Alexander Zale, an Iraqi-born actor who starred on New York stages, died Aug. 28 of complications from Parkinson's disease at his home in Los Angeles, his nephew David Shamoon said. He was 89.

Zale, then known by his birth name, Jamil Zakkai, starred in 1977 in the title role in Agamemnon at Lincoln Center and the Delacorte Theater, then had another title role in a La Mama production of Faust the following year.

Wrote The New York Times in its review: "Jamil Zakkai, last summer's Agamemnon in Central Park, retains his grandeur as Faust. In his haunted eyes, we can sense the man's dilemma — the amazement and curiosity with which he greets Mephistopheles' machinations, the guilt that he feels when he is forced to kill his love's brother."

After changing his name to Alexander Zale, he moved to Los Angeles and appeared as a judge on eight episodes of Matlock and as an ambassador from Afghanistan on 24. He also showed up on other series like Cagney & Lacey, The Incredible Hulk, Tracey Takes On and NYPD Blue.

His film résumé included roles in Frances (1982), starring Jessica Lange; Invasion U.S.A. (1985), starring Chuck Norris; Mike Nichols' Postcards From the Edge (1990); Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995); and Robin Swicord's Wakefield (2016), starring Bryan Cranston.

In 2006, Zale worked with Annette Bening, Alfred Molina and Sarah Paulson in a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Born into a Jewish family in Baghdad on March 18, 1931, Zale and his family fled to Bombay (now Mumbai) shortly after a pogrom in 1941, during which hundreds of Jews were slaughtered. He emigrated to the U.S. at age 18, graduated from Hofstra University and served in the U.S. Navy.

In 1959, he appeared off-Broadway in a Living Theatre production of Jack Gelber's The Connection, about drug-addled jazz musicians, then joined the company for a European tour. He remained in Italy to work with Vittorio Gassman and traveled with his company to the Aldwych Theatre in London.

His other stage work in New York included roles in Andrei Serban's Medea at La Mama and Public Theater productions of The Dybbuk, The Golem and Henry V, the last one in 1984 starring Kevin Kline.

Zale also worked in regional theater in Baltimore, Seattle and at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Jennifer; his brother, Victor; and several nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews. Donations in his name may be made to the Actors Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center.