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Charles Kimbrough, the Emmy-nominated actor best known for his splendid decade-long portrayal of staid network anchor Jim Dial on Murphy Brown, has died. He was 86.
Kimbrough died Jan. 11 in Culver City, his son, John Kimbrough, told The New York Times.
A veteran of the stage, Kimbrough received a Tony Award nomination in 1971 for best featured actor in a musical for playing Harry in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. He then appeared as two characters in another acclaimed Sondheim musical, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park With George, which debuted in 1984.
Kimbrough also starred in 1995 in the original off-Broadway production of the A.R. Gurney comedy Sylvia opposite Sarah Jessica Parker and appeared on the Great White Way in Candide, Same Time, Next Year, Accent on Youth, Hay Fever, The Merchant of Venice and, most recently, with Jim Parsons in a 2012 revival of Harvey.
The Minnesota native also provided the voice of the strait-laced gargoyle Victor in the 1996 animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in its 2002 sequel and for several video-game iterations.
Kimbrough appeared on all 247 original episodes of CBS’ Monday night hit Murphy Brown, which aired for 10 seasons, from 1988–98. His principled, easily ruffled character, cast in the mold of an elder statesman like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, was the co-anchor with Murphy (Candice Bergen) of the fictional CBS newsmagazine FYI.
When Murphy Brown returned in September 2018, he was back for a couple of new episodes as well.
In a 2007 interview for the Archive of American Television, Murphy Brown creator Diane English noted that Kimbrough “wrote a whole biography for his character before he started to play him.”
“Charlie is the most lovable, lanky, rubbery, sweet, adorable man,” she added. “When he came in to read for us as Jim Dial, he brought it all there: ramrod posture, anchor voice, slick-back hair. He brought a credibility to the character. We didn’t want a Ted Baxter version of this guy. We wanted the real deal.”
He received a supporting comedy actor Emmy nomination in 1990.
Kimbrough was married to actress Beth Howland, best known for playing Mel’s Diner waitress Vera Louise Gorman on the long-running CBS sitcom Alice. She died in December 2015 at age 74 of lung cancer.
Charles Mayberry Kimbrough was born on May 23, 1936, to a middle-class family in St. Paul, Minnesota. His mother was a pianist and his father a salesman, and his sister, Linda, would also grow up to be an actress.
He said his life was influenced by an aunt, Emily Kimbrough, a co-author of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. The book, a reminiscence of her travels in Europe in the early 1920s, was made into a 1944 movie at Paramount, with Diana Lynn starring as Emily.
“Her life was a series of anecdotes,” Kimbrough said in a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “She would give dinner parties and have everyone on the floor laughing. She was an Auntie Mame-ish sort of person. She made the life she wanted to have, and really, that was a model for me.”
Kimbrough studied theater and drama at Indiana University, graduating in 1958, then earned his masters at the Yale School of Drama. He and in his first wife, the late Mary Jane Wilson, were members of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre company. (They divorced in 1991.)
Kimbrough made his Broadway debut in 1969 in the short-lived John Guare comedy Cop-Out. Producer-director Hal Prince spotted him in that and offered him the role of Barbara Barrie’s alcoholic husband in Company. (It was here that he met Howland, who played the nervous bride Amy in the musical, and they married in 2002.)
Kimbrough also sang on the acclaimed original cast recording of Company, participating in the numbers “Sorry-Grateful” and “Have I Got a Girl for You,” and was seen in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the making of the album.
Kimbrough spent most of the 1970s working on stages in Washington, New Haven, Connecticut, and New York and doing commercials.
He made his onscreen debut on an episode of Kojak in 1975, then showed up at the end of The Front (1976), playing a House Committee on Un-American Activities attorney who hears testimony from bogus TV writer Howard Prince (Woody Allen) on why he’s not a communist.
Kimbrough also appeared in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over (1979), It’s My Turn (1980) and Switching Channels (1988) before landing his life-altering Murphy Brown gig.
“To be honest, I hadn’t worked for two years before Murphy Brown,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1992. “It’s a nice illusion now to think of all of us as terribly successful and talented people at the top of our profession, but that’s hindsight. I had to pray for a job like this.
“It was going to get me over this bumpy patch in my middle years, a conveyor belt to this West Coast life. I would run to work! The first couple of years, I was here ever day 15 minutes early. Everyone thought I was so disciplined. No! I had nothing else to do.”
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