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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Veteran stage and screen actor Jack Bannon of “Lou Grant” fame dies

Jack Bannon, who played assistant city editor Art Donovan on the Emmy-winning TV series “Lou Grant,” and who since 1995 has lived in Coeur d’Alene with his wife, Ellen Travolta, died Wednesday.

He was 77.

Bannon was an active player on local stages, including more than two decades in the company of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. There, he was Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” Horace Vandergelder twice in “Hello, Dolly,” Daddy Warbucks in “Annie,” and the narrator of “Into the Woods.” At Spokane Civic Theatre, he portrayed the stage manager in “Our Town,” and at the former Interplayers he starred in “Art,” “The Fantasticks” and “Bus Stop,” among others.

His last play was “On Shaky Ground,” for Ignite Community Theater in 2016, which was written by his stepdaughter, radio host Molly Allen. He and his wife co-starred frequently, doing “Love Letters” at Lake City Playhouse, Interplayers, CST and the University of Idaho, or in recent years in the holiday show at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

His career stretched back to 1964, when he made his debut in the TV sitcom “Karen.” He would go on to make appearances on shows such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Daniel Boone,” “Mannix,” “Barney Miller,” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

But it was “Lou Grant” that most closely defines Bannon’s career. The show was a spin-off of the iconic “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” as Ed Asner’s gruff editor relocated from a Minneapolis TV station to the newsroom of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. It was an unusual move, taking the character from a 30-minute comedy to an hourlong drama that often delved into social commentary, but it seemed to work. The show ran for five seasons on CBS, and won an Emmy for outstanding drama. It also won two Golden Globes and the Peabody.

His film credits include the 1969 horror film “Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice,” starring Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page, 1970’s “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, and the 1990 Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick “Death Warrant,” as well as the regionally produced films “Navajo Blues” (1996) and “The Basket” (1999).

Bannon was born June 14, 1940, to a show business family. His father, Jim Bannon, was a radio, television and movie actor who played the Red Ryder in four 1940s Westerns. His mother, Bea Benaderet, was a noted radio and television performer. She did several voices for the “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio show, and was a two-time Emmy nominee for best supporting actress for her work on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” She was Kate Bradley on “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres,” and the voice of Betty Rubble on the “The Flintstones.”

His first marriage to Kathleen Larkin ended in divorce. In 1983, he married Travolta. The two met at birthday party for their agent – a party both Bannon and 10-year-old Molly brought the same gift to.

“Their longtime agent, he was a hypochondriac, and I brought him a pretend doctor’s kit,” Allen said. “And Jack brought him a deluxe pretend doctor’s kit. Then he saw my mom – he asked who the lady with the pretty green eyes was. Then they started dating.”

She added, “Jack and I had a similar sense of humor from the beginning.”

Bannon and Travolta started visiting the Coeur d’Alene area in the late 1980s. By 1995, they’d bought their place above the lake and left Los Angeles. Rather than retire, he continued to work, although mostly it was on the stage.

He typically was a standout performer in whatever role he was in, and was seemingly as happy with a major role as he was with smaller parts. In his final season with CST, in 2013, he cropped up as a last-minute substitution in “Big River,” playing Judge Thatcher.

“It was sweet because sometimes he would do small parts in a play at summer theater because he wanted to be part of it, and he’d do two scenes. Another show, he would be the lead,” Allen said. “He just wanted to be a part of it.”

While he made a living primarily in television, he was an accomplished stage actor. He was part of the ensemble that won an L.A. Drama Critic’s Award for Caryl Churchill’s 1983 “Cloud Nine,” and starred in a 1982 revival of “Mr. Roberts” in Los Angeles, directed by the legendary Joshua Logan.

In his review of Civic’s “Our Town” in 2000, former Spokesman-Review arts reporter Jim Kershner admitted to gushing in his appraisal of Bannon’s work as the stage manager. “He is commanding in a way which manages not to be domineering. He is informal, droll and his New England accent is right on the mark. He not only sounds the part, he looks the part. With his vest and pocket watch and his long, lean Yankee frame, he looks like an uncommonly wise train conductor. You might say he is conducting us into a kind of a fourth theatrical dimension, in which we can finally see ourselves as we really are.”

For the actors who worked with him, Bannon was an inspiring presence who was funny and kind and a consummate professional.

Spokane-born actor Cheyenne Jackson, star of “American Horror Story” and “United 93,” recalled working alongside Bannon at the summer theater.

“I have such fond memories of working with Jack on a few different occasions,” Jackson said in a statement. “He had a wonderful ease and confidence about him. He made you feel comfortable in the world and was the epitome of a gentleman.”

Longtime friend and collaborator Patrick Treadway recalled Bannon as a wonderful person.

“He was always available to any local actor,” Treadway said. “When he was invited, he was an excellent teacher. He was a master of dialects and he certainly knew his way around acting. But he was not one to force his opinions or his techniques on anyone. If you asked him, he was a wealth of knowledge.”

Through work together at CST and Interplayers, and the holiday show in 2014, Treadway said he learned a valuable lesson from Bannon.

“Kindness in the workplace, i.e. the stage, is the most valuable gift you can give yourself and everyone else around you,” Treadway said. “You might as well just be kind is what Jack’s message really was. I never saw him turn anyone way. Generous is the word that just keeps coming back in describing him and in describing my friendship with him. He was the same guy at home and in the workplace and in public. He was a very genuine fella.”

Roger Welch met Bannon in 1990, when both were in the cast of “My Fair Lady” at the summer theater. Welch, who would go on to perform with and direct Bannon in dozens of productions as CST’s artistic director, said it feels like he’s lost a part of his family.

“He was like a second father and friend,” Welch said. “I adored him. We talked every day just about, even when I moved. It’s going to be a big loss.”

Bannon died in Coeur d’Alene surrounded by family, Allen said. He is survived by his wife, Ellen Travolta Bannon; stepchildren Molly Allen and Tom Fridley; sister Maggie Fuller and her husband, Clark Fuller; and two nieces and a nephew. Services are pending.