Joseph Sirola, Actor and Tony-Winning Producer, Dies at 89

Joseph A. Sirola OBIT - Publicity - H 2018
Curran McLure Reid

He was in 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown,' 'Hang 'Em High' and 'The Andy Griffith Show' and heard in so many commercials, he was called 'The King of the Voice-Overs.'

Joseph Sirola, the genial actor and Tony Award-winning producer who was known as "The King of the Voice-Overs," has died. He was 89.

Sirola died of complications from respiratory failure Sunday at a rehabilitation hospital in New York City, his longtime companion, Claire Gozzo, said.

On the big screen, Sirola appeared in Strange Bedfellows (1965) opposite Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida; in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); with Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (1968); and in The Super Cops (1974), directed by Gordon Parks.

Sirola portrayed bandleader Freddy Fleet on a season-three episode of CBS' The Andy Griffith Show and was U.S. spy Jonathan Kaye on a few installments of the original Hawaii Five-O.

He played the patriarch of an Italian-American family on NBC's The Montefuscos, a sitcom from That Girl creators Bill Persky and Sam Denoff that lasted just a handful of episodes in 1975. He also was a regular on another short-lived NBC series, 1974's The Magician, starring Bill Bixby.

Sirola also appeared opposite James Cagney in a 1984 CBS telefilm, Terrible Joe Moran — it would be Cagney's final onscreen role. And as Founding Father Thomas Paine, he was interviewed by Steve Allen for PBS' Meeting of the Minds.

Sirola won his Tony in 2014 for producing the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. He was nominated a year earlier for producing a revival of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, starring Cicely Tyson.  

A recipient of more than two dozen Clio Awards, Sirola served as a spokesman for such products as Vicks Formula 44, Boar's Head meats and NyQuil and for such companies as Wendy's, Mobil, General Electric, Ford, Hertz and Club Med. His deep, distinctive voice was heard on the iconic "I Love New York" campaign and during the Empire State Building tour.

In 1970, The Wall Street Journal called him "The King of the Voice-Overs" in a front-page story.

"Not knowing any better, I used the mic as a person," he said a few years ago. "I spoke to the audience rather than at them. I went from $3,200 a year to a million a year for 20 years."

A son of Croatian immigrants, Sirola was born on Oct. 7, 1929, in Carteret, New Jersey. His father was a carpenter and his mother ran a boarding house. He attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and earned a scholarship to Columbia University.

Following graduation in 1951 and a 15-month stint in the Korean War, Sirola was working as a sales promotion manager at Kimberly-Clark when, at age 28, he decided to take an acting class at Hunter College. 

Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times saw the redhead performing off-Broadway in his professional acting debut and seemed impressed: "Joe Sirola played the part of the gassed-up landlord vigorously, alternating between tender remorse and brutishness," he wrote.

That eventually led to a co-starring role on Broadway with Tammy Grimes in 1960 in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in which he created the role of Christmas Morgan. When he wasn't performing at night, he was playing Peter Nino in the afternoons on the CBS soap opera The Brighter Day.

"Tallulah Bankhead said I was her favorite actor," Sirola said. "She had it written into her contract that during her rehearsals, she had to stop working between 3:00 and 3:30 so she could watch the show."

Sirola later starred opposite Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme in the 1968-69 hit Broadway musical Golden Rainbow and portrayed Ludlow Lowell in Pal Joey and Alfie Doolittle in My Fair Lady, in which he sang "With a Little Bit of Luck." 

His New York stage producing credits also included Cagney: The MusicalThe Motherf**ker With the Hat; Love Letters (starring Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow); Ghetto KlownStick Fly; and Time Stands Still.

On TV, Sirola also showed up on The UntouchablesPerry MasonMission: ImpossibleThe Man From U.N.C.L.E.Get Smart; Quincy, M.E.; WolfRhodaThe Rockford FilesNYPD Blue; and Silk Stalkings.

Sirola hosted an annual "Champagne and Roses Soiree" from his Manhattan penthouse on East 66th Street and often sported a rose in his lapel that was nurtured in his garden. He also owned an extremely rare 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300Sc that he said he purchased from its only other owner, J. Paul Getty.

In February, Sirola's signature and handprints were immortalized in cement outside the historic Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village.

In addition to Gozzo, survivors include his daughter, Dawn; granddaughters Eva, Isabel and Sofia; goddaughter Curran; nephew Stewart; and nieces Susan and Andre.