Larry Neumann Jr., a gruff, gritty Chicago actor widely regarded as quintessential, died Wednesday at the age of 62. His death was announced by his former wife of 18 years, Sandy Borglum.
Borglum said Neumann collapsed and died at his South Shore home, most likely from complications due to Type 1 diabetes.
“Larry was the hardest working man I ever knew,” Borglum said in an interview, speaking of her love for her former husband and his furious affection for his entire family. “He was lucky in that he always was able to live his life on his own terms.”
Neumann’s contributions to the Chicago theater stretched back decades and are without an obvious peer. He was mostly known as an actor, although he also served for a while as managing director of the Famous Door Theatre Company, an influential off-Loop company.
In later years, he took on a well-deserved paternalistic role with younger actors, often signing himself off as “Uncle Lar.” He was a fixture at post-show bar gatherings, pre-pandemic at least, sharing his many war stories from the off-Loop theater.
His work here dated back to the mid-1980s, when Neumann worked with Blind Parrot Productions, which performed in the back room of the Amethyst Grill and Tavern on North Broadway, and New Crimes Productions. In 1986, Neumann played the title role in “Artaud at Rodez” by Charles Marowitz, where he injected himself with a syringe on stage and was nailed into a coffin at the end; witnesses recalled him screaming and pounding on the cover as the audience made its exit.
By 1988, he was playing Iago in the Chicago Shakespeare Company production of “Othello,” opposite Shira Piven’s Desdemona.
Seminal roles over the years also included the one-man show “Judgement,” seen at Famous Door in 1995, wherein Neumann played the sole sane survivor of a group of seven Russian officers, all imprisoned, abandoned and left naked in a cell for two months. He matched that psychological intensity stage time and time again, be it as a Shakespearean tragedian or, memorably, as merely a Chestnut Seller (with issues) in the annual Goodman Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol.”
And in 1996, he even played the Dalai Lama in Eric Overmyer’s monologue, “The Dalai Lama Goes Three for Four,” replete with bald pate and saffron robe. Perhaps most remarkable of all was his performance as Richard Nickel, a Chicago photographer obsessed with saving great architecture, in the 2001 Lookingglass Theatre production of “They All Fall Down.”
Neumann was born in Sept. 1959, according to public records, and grew up in and around Chicago.
In an off-Loop world dominated by young actors with an eye on what might be ahead, Neumann was something of an anomaly. As such, given his affinity for curmudgeons and his focus on the work even at the expense of personal career development, Neumann worked constantly. Even his comic turns, as in Will Kern’s “Hellcab,” were tinged with the kind of tragedy he also found in Famous Door’s seminal production of “Ghetto.”
He was, by all accounts, one of a kind. And a candidate for the Chicago actor who did the most off-Loop shows, ever.
“There was a time when I don’t think there was a theater in Chicago where Larry hadn’t worked,” said Marc Grapey, formerly the artistic director of Famous Door. “He was part of the fabric, he was part of the landscape. He was also a true original. I know the theaters have been dark for quite a while now, but when they do come back, some key players are going to be missing.”
Survivors include Neumann’s mother, Patti, and three siblings: Cindy, Tim and Brian.
Plans for a memorial celebration, Grapey said, are pending.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.