Bill Macy, a Memorable Sitcom Foil on ‘Maude,’ Dies at 97


Bill Macy, an actor best known for his role as Walter Findlay, Bea Arthur’s harried husband, on the popular 1970s sitcom “Maude,” died on Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Samantha Harper Macy.

Mr. Macy’s acting career took off after he turned 40 and peaked with his role on “Maude.” He played Walter for the show’s entire run, from 1972 to 1978.

“Maude” pushed sitcom boundaries. Its lead character was an outspoken middle-aged feminist whose atypical household consisted of her husband, her daughter from an earlier marriage and the daughter’s son. The show, seen on CBS, addressed complex social issues like abortion, alcoholism and racial and sexual relations. Some episodes generated thousands of complaints.

“We took very serious things,” Mr. Macy said in a phone interview for this obituary in 2010. “We didn’t lampoon them, we lived them.”

Mr. Macy grew up in Brooklyn and had driven a taxi, and his blue-collar background made him perfect for the character of Walter, the owner of a struggling appliance store who had some memorable clashes with Maude, an idealistic firebrand. More often than not, Maude had the last word.

Fans were sometimes taken aback by Walter’s subordinate position. “People come up to you in the street and say, ‘How can you take that stuff from her?’” Mr. Macy said.

The show began as a spinoff of the pioneering producer Norman Lear’s breakthrough hit series “All in the Family,” in which Ms. Arthur appeared occasionally as Edith Bunker’s cousin and stood up to Edith’s bigoted husband, Archie.

Mr. Macy’s favorite episode of “Maude,” he said, was the one in which he did not appear: “Bea Arthur did a solo, and I was paid without having to go to work that week.”

Bill Macy was born Wolf Marvin Garber on May 18, 1922, in Revere, Mass., to Mollie and Michael Garber. (He said that his neighbors persuaded his parents to Americanize his first name to William). When he was 9 months old, the family moved to the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. His father worked in the garment industry in Brooklyn.

After graduating from Samuel J. Tilden High School, Mr. Macy served in the Army from 1942 to 1946 with the 594th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, stationed in the Philippines, Japan and New Guinea.

After years of working odd jobs and attending acting classes, he enrolled in New York University’s School of Education and earned a bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts in 1954. While there, he married Sandra Sprinkling. They soon divorced.

While driving a taxi, Mr. Macy began booking small parts onstage. He chose the name Bill Macy to distinguish himself from another actor named William Garber.

In reviewing an Off Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing” in 1970, Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times that “Bill Macy’s Uncle Morty, confident that the system will work just so long as you tip it politely and don’t make rude noises, is drawn with a steel nib, fine and hard.”

Mr. Macy was finally able to give up driving a cab for good in 1966, after landing roles in two of the three one-act plays that made up Jean-Claude van Itallie’s dark Off Broadway satire “America Hurrah.”

Mr. Macy said that Mr. Lear saw his performance and invited him to California for a brief appearance as a police officer on “All in the Family.” He later thought of him while casting “Maude.”

In 1957 Mr. Macy met Judith Janus, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. They married a few years later and divorced in the 1960s. He met Samantha Harper when she auditioned as a replacement in “Oh! Calcutta!,” the erotic revue in which the actors performed nude, in 1969. She passed the audition, and they married in 1975. She is his only survivor.

After “Maude,” Mr. Macy starred as a university president on Mr. Lear’s short-lived CBS sitcom “Hanging In.” He also appeared on television shows like “The Love Boat,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Seinfeld” and “My Name Is Earl,” and in movies like “The Producers” (1967), the film adaptation of “Oh! Calcutta!” (1972) and “Analyze This” (1999).

He played a small but pivotal part in Carl Reiner’s 1979 comedy “The Jerk,” Steve Martin’s first movie. Mr. Macy’s character’s glasses keep slipping off his nose, and Mr. Martin’s character, working as an enthusiastic gas station attendant, invents a device to keep them in place. Mr. Macy’s character markets the device and makes Mr. Martin’s character rich.

Mr. Macy was an inveterate joker, even when discussing his career. He recalled being approached by a man who said his performance in a Broadway play was the worst he had seen in 20 years.

His reply, he said, was “Sir, sir, I’m a terrible actor, but it’s the only thing I do well.”

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