Roger V. Burton, Jazz Musician and Late-Blooming Actor, Dies at 90

Roger Burton-Publicity-P-2018
Courtesy of The Burton 5

He played with Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole and appeared on 'Baskets,' 'The Cool Kids,' 'Shameless' and 'Fargo.'

Roger V. Burton, a jazz musician and actor who played with Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole and appeared on Baskets and The Cool Kids, died Friday at his home in Santa Monica, his five daughters announced. He was 90.

Burton stars with Frasier actress Peri Gilpin in an upcoming short film, Old Guy, about the stereotyped depictions of aging in American media. Produced by Five Sisters Productions — his daughters' film company — the 21-minute film was inspired by Burton, who noted that elderly actors are often listed in scripts or credits without a name; they're simply called "Old Guy."

Burton, who had only been acting since about 1998, showed up on such series as ShamelessMy Name Is Earl, Fargo, MonkHouseThe George Lopez Show and Up All Night; participated in skits on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show; and appeared in films including Manna From Heaven (2002) and The Clapper (2017).

Burton portrayed the father of Martha (Martha Kelly) on the FX comedy Baskets and a character named Philips on the new Fox sitcom The Cool Kids.

A professional musician since he was 11, Burton played the jazz trombone in big bands and on film soundtracks. Nicknamed "Schoolboy" — he used his set breaks to finish his homework — he entered USC at 16 and left with a bachelor's degree in music and a master's degree in sciences.

Burton performed with Peggy Lee, Andre Previn, Nat King Cole, Johnny Ray, Frankie Laine, the Lennie Niehaus Octet and The Ink Spots and was a regular on CBS' The Hoagy Carmichael Show.

He switched to the bass and played in smaller combos after getting lessons from a friend, Charles Mingus.

After Burton wrote a response to a psychology study that claimed musicians were irresponsible, he was invited to pursue graduate studies in the field of psychology and given a full scholarship to Harvard. 

Burton became a developmental psychology researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, did research with psychologist Jean Piaget in Switzerland in 1967 and became a full professor at SUNY Buffalo in moral development and childhood social development.

He toured in the early 1970s with his wife, novelist and screenwriter Gabrielle Burton, as opening speakers for Gloria Steinem, talking about their commitment as parents to defining gender roles and housework more equally. 

After leaving his teaching post in Buffalo, he retired to accompany his wife to Los Angeles, where she was working as a screenwriter, and began a new career as an actor. 

At 80 years old, Burton and his wife climbed to the base camp of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Survivors include his daughters Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle and Charity; sons-in-law David, Aniruddh, Graeme, Darin and Steve; sister JoDe; and eight grandchildren.