Richard Hummert, who died on December 28th, a week after heart bypass surgery, was one of Buffalo’s most acclaimed character actors. He won two Artie Awards, the first for playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre and Women in Theatre companies in 1996, and the other for portraying redneck Sheriff Sam Guidry in A Lesson Before Dying at Studio Arena in 2001. He also appeared on the stages of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, the Irish Classical Theatre, and the Kavinoky Theatre.
Maureen Porter, who starred as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, was also one of the production’s producers. Porter remembers that, “from the moment we decided to do the show, I knew that I wanted Richard to play Big Daddy. He was a gift to that production. Each night when he strutted on stage in that white suit with cigar in hand, he commanded the former Irish Classical space [on Chippewa Street], sneering at Big Mama, flirting with Maggie, and so obviously embracing Brick as his favorite son.”
Porter recalls, in particular, the pivotal scene in which Big Daddy confronts Brick about his drinking, his marriage, and his relationship to his best friend, Skipper.
“Drew Kahn played Brick,” recalls Porter. “The scene was a master class in playing the truth. The connection they created was heart breaking, and mesmerizing. Each night, the two of them would bring life to the complicated father and son relationship.”
Hummert’s Big Daddy made unforgettable use of the intimacy of the old Irish Classical Stage. Whereas most actors explore Big Daddy’s imperiousness, this Big Daddy revealed an intimate forgiveness and understanding, making the scene all the more crushing as the characters hurled hurtful truths at each other like weapons.
Dramatic performances like this earned Hummert awards, but those who knew him best lament the loss of a man who possessed a remarkable and often irreverent sense of humor.
David Lamb, artistic director of the Kavinoky Theatre recalls playing Shakespeare’s Richard III back in 1999. He had just finished the famed “Now is the winter of our discontent speech,” that opens the play, and was walking upstage, when Hummert who was playing the Duke of Clarence, whispered to him, “Well … so far, so good!”
Lamb laughs again at the memory. He also recalls Hummert as a consummately reliable actor and a good friend.
“He taught me most of what I know about ethics and good behavior on the golf course,” says Lamb. “And he always came to our house to play Santa Claus for the kids!”
Indeed, Hummert’s uncanny resemblance to the Jolly Old Elf – and an affection for children that he liked to deny — made him a much sought after Santa Claus. This was a highly lucrative gig for him at holiday time, but he always managed to fit in a few appearances for friends. Actor and Shakespeare in Delaware Park managing director Lisa Ludwig remembers with great sentiment and gratitude the year that her mother died, just days before Christmas, and Richard showed up at her door for her annual Christmas party, dressed as Santa. Many remember that while he was dressed as Santa, his comments to adults might not always be appropriate for children. He loved to make people laugh!
Memorable Richard Hummert roles include Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, as well as Pozzo in Waiting for Godot and Nag in Endgame for the Irish Classical Theatre Company. He worked in a number of films and in television commercials, and worked for a number of seasons at The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in Louisville. Among my most vivid memories of Hummert was seeing him as Dogberry in the Shakespeare in Delaware Park production of Much Ado About Nothing. Director Saul Elkin anachronistically had Hummert perform the Aretha Franklin hit, “Respect.” The hilarious image of this large man, dressed in Shakespearean attire, belting out a rock tune inspired return audiences throughout the run.
Actor and Kavinoky Theatre managing director Loraine O’Donnell was a featured in the production. She was new in town.
“That was the first time I ever met Richard,” confirms O’Donnell. “I was the new kid; he knew EVERYONE. He would start a greeting out with ‘hey, did you hear the one about …?’ ALWAYS telling a joke. When he broke into R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the crowd went wild! This big man seamlessly going from Shakespearean dialogue to this rollicking Motown classic! He shimmied. He shook his hips. I sang backup for the song and got to watch as the audience cheered him on. I will always remember him that way…as the unlikely Shakespearean rock star.”
Hummert’s stage persona ran the gamut from menacing to farcical. “Romantic Lead,” however, was not within his stage repertoire. That role was reserved for his life off stage, where he and Darleen Pickering Hummert were an iconic theater community couple.
The two met in the theater department at Illinois State University at Normal, where Darleen was a graduate student and Richard was working on his B.A. after serving in the United States Army. When Darleen returned to Buffalo, her hometown, in 1969, Richard followed her. They married in 1973. They would go on to appear in numerous productions and to found Theatre for Change, which has, for 27 years, explored social issues through theater.
“Richard was from Breese, Illinois, a small town near St. Louis,” recalls Darleen. “He said he didn’t like city living, but he came to Buffalo and he was very happy here.”
Indeed, Buffalo will remember Richard Hummert with affection, admiration, and appreciation, and we will always consider him to be one of our own.
A Tribute event celebrating Richard’s life is being planned for April. Expect friends sharing memories, lots of music, especially Blues (which was his favorite), and, of course, a lot of laughter!