NEWPORT – Two months after his death, the generosity for which the actor and musician David Ogden Stiers was known in this central Oregon coast community continues.
The 75-year-old Stiers died March 3 of bladder cancer at his home in Newport. A well-known national figure at home in this small coastal town, he was best-known for his role as the stuffy Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series M*A*S*H, for which he was twice nominated for an Emmy Award. He was also a stage actor, debuting on Broadway in 1973 in productions of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and as Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, and a frequent voice for animated film characters, including the Disney hit Lilo and Stitch and as Cogsworth, the imperious talking clock, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Stiers didn’t just live in Newport, he took an active part in the central coast’s cultural life, and his last will and testament reveals some of the many ways his influence continues. Filed April 17 in Lincoln County Circuit Court, it details numerous donations to nonprofit organizations. He left his collection of CDs and DVDs to the Newport Public Library and his collection of audio recordings (LPs and 78s), his wine collection, artwork and pen collection to the Newport Symphony Orchestra, which he often conducted. He also gave $50,000 each to the Southern Poverty Law Center; My Sisters’ Place; Samaritan House, Inc.; the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts; and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Lincoln County, as well as $50,000 to the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore to establish a scholarship program for persons planning a career in politics.
Stiers also made numerous gifts of money and property to individuals in the Oregon coast community, including his Tesla Model X to Newport Symphony Orchestra music director Adam Flatt. In a note posted on the Symphony’s webpage, Flatt wrote, “All of us at the NSO are heartbroken. David Ogden Stiers was a generous, loving, and inspirational friend and pillar to our orchestra, and, indeed, to all of us individually. Our orchestra would not be here if it weren’t for his great support and inspiration over three decades. His depth of musical feeling, love for our musicians, and charisma made his performances soar when he was on our podium. We will all work to keep David’s spirit alive in all of our performances.”
John Lavrakas, the orchestra’s executive director, recalled that Stiers had attended Juilliard to become an actor, but skipped classes with John Houseman, whose prestigious City Center Acting Company he later joined, instead slipping next door where John Williams was teaching conducting.
In the high school student program, the Battle of Batons, Stiers taught teens stage presence, how to conduct, and how to read music. The event culminated with students competing on stage to win the title of Grand Baton Winner. “It was Battle of Batons, not Battle of the Batons,” Lavrakas said. “He corrected me several times on that. He bankrolled those; he paid for them all. Any money we made would go to youth programs or whatever. You can’t replace someone like that. The best you can hope for is the spirit he represented.”
Ted Smith, Newport Public Library director, first met Stiers when he came to the library and asked Smith to accompany him to his car where he had a trunk load of CDs, some new, that he donated to the library. “He gave more than he took,” Smith said. “He was a quiet user of the library.”
Stiers was born in Peoria, Ill. His family moved to Eugene in the late 1950s, and he moved to the coast in the 1980s. In an interview for The Oregonian, Stiers told me he’d always planned to make the area his primary residence, and chose Newport in part because of the Newport Performing Arts Center, still in its infancy at the time. He recalled his introduction there. “I walked in to say hello and, ‘I don’t know what you need done … I love to perform. Here I am. If you need anything, let me know.’”
The conversation led Stiers to the symphony, but he also directed plays and began the holiday tradition of reading A Christmas Carol at the PAC. Admission was by donation, and all proceeds went to various nonprofits. “The best kind of giving is giving to people you don’t know,” Stiers said. “You are doing something beneficial and ongoing for people you will never meet. It’s that you care about everyone who lives here, whether you know them or not, and you find ways to help in the ways you can.”
Two memorial concerts were held in Stiers’ honor in March. The NSO has also commissioned a piece by San Francisco Bay area composer Mark Fish, whose work includes Ferdinand the Bull. Stiers narrated Ferdinand in concert and also worked with Fish on other projects, Lavrakas said: “He’s going to do a work in honor of David and it will be premiered in the May 2019 concert. I think that’s cool.”