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Overview for Jordan Steinberg
Jordan Steinberg

Jordan Steinberg


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One of the most respected character actors in show business for three decades, Peter Boyle's imposing frame and powerful personality was the highlight of numerous films and television projects, ranging from "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and "Taxi Driver" (1976) to "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005). Boyle's size and intensity made him a natural to play heavies, which he did throughout his career in projects ranging from his starmaking turn in "Joe" (1970) to "Monster's Ball" (2001), but in real life, this former aspirant to the Catholic brotherhood was a lifelong pacifist and intellectual, as well as a gifted comic actor who performed with the legendary Second City troupe. "Young Frankenstein" launched him as a screen comedian, and he divided his time between drama and laughs for the remainder of his career, which ended on a high note with seven Emmy nominations for his turn as the uber-crotchety Frank Barone on "Raymond." It, along with the wealth of great performances throughout his life, cemented his status as a beloved screen presence.

Born Peter Lawrence Boyle in Norristown, PA on Oct. 18, 1935, he was the son of Philadelphia television personality Francis "Uncle Pete" Boyle, who hosted numerous children's programs in the 1950s and early 1960s. (Boyle had a chance to play his father years later in the 1988 film "The In Crowd," which centered around a dance party series that broadcast out of Philadelphia in the early 1960s). Boyle's childhood was spent largely in Catholic schools, and after graduation, he spent three years as a novice at the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, a Catholic teaching order. Boyle did not complete his tenure with the order, having failed to feel a significant calling to a religious life, but did receive a BA from La Salle University in 1957. The United States Navy was his next stop, but after graduating from Officer Candidate School in 1959, he left the military after suffering a nervous breakdown.

Boyle next headed to New York City with the intention of becoming an actor. By day, he trained with famed drama teacher Uta Hagen while dividing his evening hours between work as a postman and maitre d' and roles on stage, beginning in 1961 with "Shadow of Heroes." His first screen appearances also came during this period, first in television commercials and later in an unaccredited turn in the 1966 period drama "The Group." Wider exposure came with a role in the touring company of "The Odd Couple," but after coming in contact with members of the famed Second City improve troupe, he left the production and joined the group as a regular performer. It proved to be a momentous decision for his career; not only did he gain, in rapid succession, small roles in three Chicago-lensed features - Haskell Wexler's groundbreaking "Medium Cool" (1969) and the counterculture comedies "The Monitors" (1969) and "The Virgin President" (the later penned by and starring Second City vet Severn Darden) - but he made his Broadway debut in "Story Theatre," a play by Second City founder Paul Sills. Boyle's arrival in Chicago coincided with the tumult of the 1968 Democratic Convention, which was overrun by violent clashes between war protestors and the police. The experience made him a dedicated and lifelong supporter of liberal causes.

Ironically, for a man with such a passion for non-violence and left-wing ideals, he would achieve his first break at stardom playing a loudmouthed, thuggish and ultimately homicidal hardhat in John G. Avildsen's "Joe" (1970). The drama, about a pent-up businessman (Dennis Patrick) who is drawn into free love and murder by Boyle's mad dog construction worker, was a cultural touchstone for American viewers reeling from the political unrest that plagued the final years of the 1960s. Boyle's mesmerizing and repellant performance earned overwhelming critical praise, but on a troubling note, also major support from conservative viewers who cheered Joe as he indiscriminately murdered hippies in the film's final scenes. The experience convinced Boyle to steer clear of future projects that glorified violence, including "The French Connection," whose hard-nosed detective hero, Popeye Doyle, was originally offered to him. Unfortunately, Boyle would struggle to find roles that did not hinge on a criminal element. There were a few, like his lonely businessman in Peter Hyams' "T.R. Baskin" (1971) and an offbeat construction worker in the anarchic comedy "Steelyard Blues" (1973). The latter reunited him with actor Donald Sutherland and close friend Jane Fonda, with whom he had participated in numerous anti-war rallies, and with whom he had traveled to various Army bases to perform political comedy during the Vietnam War. Their efforts were documented in the 1972 film "FTA."

But for the most part, the men Boyle played in the early 1970s were at best, ruthless, and at worst, deadly. He was Robert Redford's underhanded campaign advisor in "The Candidate" (1972), and earned his first Emmy nomination as Senator Joseph McCarthy in "Tail Gunner Joe" (NBC, 1977). There were also malevolent underworld types in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973) and "Crazy Joe" (1974), a tough Teamster boss in "F.I.S.T." (1976), the lethal "Fatso" Judson in the TV miniseries adaptation of "From Here to Eternity" (NBC, 1979), and a scurrilous 19th century noblemen in "Swashbuckler (1976). Somewhat less dangerous, but still not quite on the side of the angels, were Wizard, the sympathetic and philosophic cabbie who advises Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976), a small time Irish fence who gets involved in a disastrous bank robbery in William Friedkin's "The Brink's Job" (1978), and a hard-boiled P.I. who aids George C. Scott in finding his missing daughter in Paul Schrader's "Hardcore" (1979).

In the midst of all this violence and drama, one of Boyle's greatest gifts - his comic talent - received its greatest showcase. He had appeared in a handful of comedies during the period - there were the late '60s efforts, as well as "Steelyard Blues" and "Slither" (1973), an oddball crime picture which cast him as an unctuous nightclub performer, but none had been seen by a wide audience. So it was Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" that not only demonstrated just how funny Boyle could be, but also changed the course of Boyle's career from screen heavy to eccentric comic presence.

Like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee before him, Boyle emphasized the childlike qualities of his Monster; though quick to anger and destructive, he was also poignant in his befuddlement over the vagaries of life. Boyle brought genuine delight to scenes like his encounter with Gene Hackman's lonely hermit - who accidentally boils his lap with soup and sets his finger on fire while lighting a cigar - and added a touch of devilish adolescence to the unexpected passion between him and Madeleine Kahn, the prim fiancée of Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder). Boyle was also front and center for the film's comic highpoint, an unexpected duet of "Puttin' on the Ritz" with his creator, with the Monster offering a tone-deaf counterpoint to Wilder's smooth patter. A smash hit upon its release, "Young Frankenstein" remained one of the most well loved American comedies in the decades that followed, and eventually earned a place in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. The film was personally significant for Boyle as well; he was interviewed on set by Rolling Stone journalist Lorraine Alterman, whom he married in 1977. A close friend of Yoko Ono, Alterman introduced him to John Lennon, who became not only a boon companion but the best man at his wedding. Boyle and Alterman's first daughter, Lucy, was born two days after Lennon was assassinated in 1980; a second child, Amy, followed in 1983.

After "Frankenstein," however, Boyle struggled to find a worthy comedic vehicle that would suit his abilities. "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980) cast him as the volcanic attorney to Bill Murray's Hunter S. Thompson, while "In God We Tru$t" (1980), "Yellowbeard" (1983) and "Johnny Dangerously" (1984) were broad slapstick comedies, all of which tanked miserably at the box office (thought the latter gangster send-up would enjoy cult status years later). Boyle soon returned to playing menacing types, like the sinister interplanetary mining executive in Peter Hyams' "Outland" (1981) and crime fiction legend Dashiell Hammett's former boss in Wim Wenders' disastrous "Hammett" (1982). Boyle soon moved to television to find substantial roles; his first effort as a series lead was "Joe Bash" (ABC, 1986), a decidedly unglamorous comedy-drama about a lonely, middle-aged beat cop (Boyle). Created by Danny Arnold of "Barney Miller" (ABC, 1975-1982) fame, the series was blissfully free of saintly portrayals of policemen - Joe debates on what to do with a dead woman's money, and sleeps with a prostitute - as well as happy endings and even a laugh track. Needless to say, audiences were not quite ready for it in the mid-'80s, and it died a quick death, despite critical acclaim. During this period, Boyle also made occasional returns to the New York stage, first in "The Roast," directed by Carl Reiner, and later in a producer of Sam Shepard's "True West" with Tommy Lee Jones.

For the next decade or so, Boyle worked largely on television, where his skills were frequently given appropriate vehicles. He earned an Emmy nomination as the father of Gary Cole's cop-turned-radio jock in "Midnight Caller" (NBC, 1988-1991), and excelled at portraying several real-life figures, including David Dellinger, the "old man" of the Vietnam War protestors known as the "Chicago 8" in "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8" (HBO, 1987), Admiral John Poindexter in "Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North" (CBS, 1989), Roger Boisjoly, who warned NASA about problems with the space shuttle program in "Challenger" (ABC, 1990), and Fred Ford, who played a similar role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in "The Tragedy of Flight 103: The Inside Story" (1990). There were also occasional returns to features, most notably in "The Dream Team" (1989), which reunited him with his "Johnny Dangerously" co-star Michael Keaton as two of four escaped mental patients who make their way through New York City.

This prolific period in Boyle's life was interrupted in 1990 by a serious stroke that rendered him speechless and immobile for six months. However, his facilities returned after intensive therapy, and by 1991, he was back in features and on television, most notably in "Honeymoon in Vegas" (1992) and a cameo as a police chief in Spike Lee's epic "Malcolm X" (1992). He also returned to series work in the short-lived Fox sitcom "Flying Blind" (1992) as the father of Tea Leoni's uninhibited heroine. By the mid-'90s, Boyle had settled comfortably into a string of guest parts on television series and movies. There were numerous highlights, like the patriarch of the quirky and loving family that Sandra Bullock wants desperately to join in "While You Were Sleeping" (1996) and a five-episode arc on "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) as the father of a schizophrenic man. Boyle finally won an Emmy during this period, for a moving appearance on "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002) as a kind-hearted man with the unfortunate ability to foresee how people will die. But in 1996, Boyle landed the role that would largely define his career for most viewers - that of Frank Barone on "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Cast largely due to the fact that he arrived in a foul mood for his audition, having gotten lost on the studio lot, Boyle brought a piece of every crank and curmudgeon he had played over the last 20 years to Frank Barone. Based on series star Ray Romano's own father, Frank was a dyed-in-the-wool grouch with a sharp tongue that spared no one, from sons Ray and Robert (Brad Garrett) to wife Marie (Doris Roberts) and daughter-in-law Debra (Patricia Heaton). But like so many times before, Boyle knew when to lend a touch of humanity to the character, and on numerous occasions, Frank was allowed to show his pride in his sons, his long-abiding affection for his wife, and his respect for Debra, one of the few people who refused to wilt before his battering-ram personality. A slow-building success in its first few seasons, "Raymond" became one of the network's biggest and most critically acclaimed hits within a few years; it also netted Boyle seven Emmy nominations and a Screen Actors Guild Award, which he shared with the cast.

In 1999, Boyle suffered another health setback when he was stricken with a heart attack on the set of "Raymond." Once again, he recovered quickly, and was back at work on the series, as well as giving supporting turns in films and TV productions. He wowed critics with the brute force of his performance in "Monster's Ball" (2001) as the virulently racist father of prison guard Billy Bob Thornton, and played the father of convicted spy Robert Hanssen in "Mastery Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story" (CBS, 2002), which featured a script by Norman Mailer. Producers were wise to tap into his popularity from "Raymond" and the legacy of "Young Frankenstein" for their comedies, which included all three "Santa Clause" movies (1994, 2002, 2006), "Scooby 2: Monsters Unleashed" (2004) and "The Mind of Mencia" (Comedy Central, 2005-08), which featured Boyle commenting angrily on the news in a blend of his onscreen and offscreen persona. Boyle also co-starred with his "Raymond" spouse, Doris Roberts, in a series of commercials commemorating the 75th anniversary of Alka-Seltzer. Few, if any, delivered the enduring phrase, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," as well as Boyle.

Boyle's health began to decline shortly after "Raymond" ended its network run in 2005. Diagnosed with multiple myeloma and heart disease, he nevertheless continued working in films and television until late 2006, when he was hospitalized for his condition. On Dec. 12, 2006, Boyle passed away at New York Presbyterian Hospital, stunning fans, critics and co-stars worldwide. No less of a figure than Bruce Springsteen memorialized Boyle on Oct. 18, 2007 - which would have been Boyle's 72nd birthday - with a performance of "Meeting Across the River" and "Jungleland" during a concert at Madison Square Garden. The two had been friends since meeting in New York in the 1970s.

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