Ted Roisum, 1952-2015: a giant falls

The brilliant longtime Portland actor dies at 62, leaving a distinguished legacy both professional and personal

UPDATE: A memorial celebration of Ted Roisum’s life will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St., Portland. The timing will allow as many theater people as possible to attend without conflicting with performances or rehearsals.

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Like a few other giants, Ted Roisum was surprisingly small in person: lean and compact, short, somehow tough and fragile at the same time, with a large and perpetually questioning head that overwhelmed his wiry body.

Yet giant he was, with a voice that rolled like God’s at the creation of the universe and trembled like Job’s in the face of a plague of locusts. On a stage, he simply grew.

Robert Theodore Roisum, one of the finest actors Portland has known, died in a Portland hospice on Thursday, January 29, 2015. He was 62.

Roisum in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas." Photo: Win Goodbody/Corrib Theatre

Roisum in Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas.” Photo: Win Goodbody/Portland Theatre Scene

His longtime friend Louanne Moldovan reported that three weeks ago, experiencing severe abdominal pains, he went to an emergency room, where doctors discovered cancerous tumors throughout his body. He had had a melanoma removed about a year earlier, and neither Ted nor his doctors realized the cancer had metastasized to his lymph system, Moldovan said.

Word spread quickly in the city’s theater circles, where Roisum was held in deep admiration, respect, and, often, a touch of awe. “Today the world lost one of its rare and beautiful souls,” actor Luisa Sermol wrote in a Facebook post. He was, she added, “a man of brilliant mind, passionate talent, and gentle heart.”

Ted was all of that, and more. He did a little bit of film and television work – including small roles in the likes of Mr. Holland’s Opus and the series Under Suspicion and Nowhere Man – but he was a man of the theater, and from the mid-1980s on, mostly on Portland stages. A show with Ted in it was almost automatically an event.

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in "Greek," 1987

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in “Greek,” 1987

After a stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the early 1980s he came of age in Portland in the ’80s and early ’90s in a series of brilliant performances, including Steven Berkoff’s scabrous Greek, in a legendary production with Vana O’Brien, Keith Scales, and Dee Dee Van Zyl. He had a taste for classic 20th century American dramas: Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses (all three with O’Brien as his wife), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. He dug deeply into Ibsen in The Master Builder, and Yeats in The Cuchulain Cycle. More than once, he played Lear (including one production that had him playing him not as a king, but as the commissioner of baseball). Such savage roles seemed to wring him dry onstage, and the audience with him, without dipping into histrionics or melodrama: his performances were too true for that.

Roisum’s remarkable, reverberating voice is what struck audiences most immediately. Marty Hughley, reviewing his Lear at Northwest Classical Theatre Company last year for ArtsWatch, wrote that the sound of his voice was “like weathered mahogany. Indignation burns and churns in him like magma. There is bullying and bitterness in this Lear, but also biting wit and touching tenderness, self-pity and self-awareness.”

The voice, it seemed to me, was a magnificent instrument, but only the doorway to an even more remarkable revelation of the soul. Almost always there was something haunting in a Roisum performance, a sense in his interpretations of a character who has seen more deeply into the mysteries of the universe than he might rationally be expected to withstand. He took his audiences to dark and dangerous places. In person he was a gentleman, with an engaging curiosity and flashes of dry humor and, it seemed to me, some of the uncertainties that so often plague exceptionally creative and sensitive people. He had doubts, and the doubts seemed part of what made him brilliant onstage. Always, there were questions. Always, there were shadings. Always, there was a part of himself in whoever he played.

Ted with Vana O'Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet's "Faith Healer."

Ted with Vana O’Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet’s “Faith Healer.”

Ted took a few lighter roles, even swashbuckling in a children’s-theater adaptation of Treasure Island. And he sometimes stepped into musical-theater productions: he had a distinctive sense of rhythm in his voice and movements. But even on the musical-comedy stage he tended toward darker roles – as Jud, for instance, the haunted outsider in Oklahoma! who gives the play the sort of disquieting anchor that Malvolio provides in Twelfth Night. The same was true in comedies. Amid the hijinks of Vitriol and Violets, a play about the Algonquin wits, he broke into a brief, chilling scene as the doomed Bartolomeo Vanzetti of Sacco and Vanzetti infamy.

He also had an eye for the new or unusual, and for the familiar cast in an unusual light. He and David Cromwell starred at Portland Center Stage in the 2003 premiere of Steven Drukman’s post-9/11 comedy Another Fine Mess as a couple of baggy-pants gents, à la Gogo and Didi, creating a backstage world very like the large one beyond the theater – a tour-de-force blending of the sheerly theatrical and the starkly political.

His 1993 show Variations on a Bard, directed by Moldovan, teamed him in scenes from Shakespeare performed to improvisational accompaniment by three jazz musicians. “Certainly, tragedy becomes Roisum, who carries a dignified sadness in his voice and bearing,” I wrote in reviewing the show for the Oregonian. “But lurking below the obvious are the makings of a first-rate comedian – a truly Shakespearean kind of fool, who knows much and makes light to illuminate the dark. With his bold features and elastic expressions, Roisum suggests the duality of the great French actor-mime Jean-Louis Barrault in Children of Paradise, creating peals of laughter while his heart breaks.”

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Certain roles simply resonated with Ted. He played Conor McPherson’s bitter theater critic in St. Nicholas three times: in 1998 for CoHo, in 2002 for Cygnet, and in 2013 for Corrib. Barry Johnson, reviewing the 2013 production for ArtsWatch, wrote of Roisum “leveling his eyes on us from time to time, an edge of self-contempt in his baritone and a tale to keep moving along.” Reviewing the 2002 production for The Oregonian, I observed: “… it’s hard to imagine any actor who can bring life to that spiritual exhaustion better than Roisum. With his deep whiskey voice and sharp cadences he approaches McPherson’s script as if it were music: every note has its meaning, and every note comes clear only in relationship to the notes that come before and after.”

That was the way he approached his work onstage: like music coming clear as it falls into place with the rest of the score. He was, indeed, a giant. Onstage and in his personal life, he made people care.

“Teddy was my friend, my co-actor and, at one time, my onstage husband,” actor Katherine King wrote on Facebook. “I am very glad that he is no longer suffering, but I am very sad for all of us who will miss him so very much.”

Teddy, rest in peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Eloquent and beautful Bob, too bad we can’t hear Ted Roisum read it aloud. I’ll not forget him in the Cuchlain Cycle (which was magnificent in every way), or in Violets and Vitriol.

  2. Jim Lykins says:

    Thanks for that, Bob.
    Ted was one of the best, onstage and off.

  3. VanaO'Brien says:

    Thank you, Bob. You followed his life onstage more closely than anyone and he had high regard for your observations. Would you be willing to say a few words at the memorial gathering? It is Sunday 2/22 at 10 am

  4. Richard Bower says:

    And, never to be forgotten, Ted as the King in the musical The King and I at The Musical Theater Company in 1994. My first MTC show as musical director for the company. What a wondrous introduction for me to the world of theater in Portland with Ted as the guiding force.

  5. Bob McGranahan says:

    Thank you Bob.
    I Will miss Ted but your words have already made it an easier journey.
    Bob McGranahan

  6. Cynthia Kirk says:

    Achingly beautiful, Bob. Your expressivenes as a writer is well matched to Ted’s as an actor. And you captured that deep sense of sadness, without pity, that drew so many to Ted, I think.

  7. Joel Applegate says:

    I aspired to be Ted from the moment I met him. Though it’s been a very long time since I last saw him, he is foremost among great actors I have known both personally and from afar. I had hoped to see him again one day, and now there’s an empty space in the world – and in my heart. God speed. My most sincere condolences to all who loved him.

  8. Ernie Casciato says:

    If I may steal from Hamlet, this certainly sums up Ted’s gift as far as I’m concerned:

    He spoke his words grippingly on the tongue…
    He did not saw the air too much with hands, but used all
    gently, for in the very torrent, tempest and whilwind of
    passion, he acquired and begat a temperance that
    would give it smoothness….
    He was not too tame, neither: he suited his actions to
    the words, the words to the actions…
    He held a mirror up to nature…showed virtue its own feature…scorned her own image…and showed the very shape and body of the time it’s form and pressure.

    Goodnight, sweet Ted, may flights of angels lead thee to thy rest!

  9. Eric Ray Anderson says:

    I’m so glad of this, and I’m glad to be able to share it. Quite perfect. Thank you for being so articulate and thorough. An extraordinary, one-of-a-kind person and performer. Alas.

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