(b. 18 July 1911 in London, Ontario, Canada; d. 15 June 2003 in Fairfield, Connecticut), versatile actor in films, theater, and television, who often performed with his actress-wife, Jessica Tandy, in one of the most enduring acting partnerships in American theater.
Cronyn was the son of Hume Blake Cronyn, a prominent Canadian politician and businessman, and Frances Amelia (Labatt) Cronyn, whose family founded Labatt Breweries. Cronyn spent his early years at Woodfield, the family home, with his two older brothers and his older sister. He attended the Lower and Upper Schools of Bishop Ridley College for nine years, and then, in 1930, at the age of nineteen, he enrolled at McGill University in Montreal to study law. While he was still a student, he made his stage debut, also at age nineteen, with the Montreal Repertory Company and appeared frequently with the McGill Player’s Club. After a year, he dropped out of McGill to pursue a full-time career as an actor.
To acquire experience, Cronyn later that year joined a stock company in Washington, D.C., speaking his first—and only—line in a play called Up Pops the Devil. In 1932 he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, completing the program in 1934 and earning an associate degree in actor training. After joining the Barter Theater Company in Virginia, and then the Jitney Touring Players headed by Ethel Barrymore, Cronyn made his first Broadway appearance playing a janitor and as understudy to Burgess Meredith in Hipper’s Holiday (1934). He then won a series of roles, often as a replacement, in plays directed by the legendary George Abbott, including Three Men on a Horse, Boy Meets Girl, and Room Service. In the summer of 1935, Cronyn married Emily Woodruff, but they soon divorced.
In the late 1930s, after unsuccessful screen tests at Columbia and Paramount, Cronyn kept busy in the theater. Starting in March 1938, he had roles in seventeen plays, most of them failures, and during the summers of 1939 and 1940, he appeared in eleven stock productions at the Lakewood Theater in Skowhegan, Maine. In the hope of becoming an actor-manager, he also optioned nine one-act plays by Tennessee Williams, recognizing Williams’s talent years before the playwright came to public attention. During World War II, he acted in, produced, and directed a number of United Service Organizations (USO) camp shows.
In 1940 Cronyn met a young British actress named Jessica Tandy, when she was appearing on Broadway in Jupiter Laughs. She had been married for ten years to the British actor Jack Hawkins, and they had a six-year-old daughter named Susan. Captivated by what Cronyn later called her sensitivity, talent, generosity to others, compassion, and “her beauty,” he fell deeply in love; when Tandy reciprocated, they were married on 27 September 1942. The marriage endured happily—and professionally—for fifty years and produced two children, one of whom, their daughter, Tandy, became an actor.
In 1943 Cronyn made his film debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery thriller Shadow of a Doubt, playing Herbie Hawkins, the nosy neighbor of a California family that innocently harbors a relative who happens to be a serial killer. Cronyn’s characterization of a little man gleefully relishing the lurid details of tabloid murder stories attracted critical attention. Cronyn made about a dozen films between 1942 and 1948, including The Seventh Cross (1944), for which he received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor; Lifeboat (1944); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); The Beginning of the End (1947); and Brute Force (1948). During this period, he also worked on the screenplays for two Alfred Hitchcock films: Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949).
Cronyn’s film work continued into the 1950s and 1960s with People Will Talk (1951), Sunrise at Campobello (1960), and Cleopatra (1963), among other films. He also appeared frequently on television in starring or supporting roles in many drama series, but he and Tandy continued to devote much of their time to the theater during these years. In the early 1950s, Cronyn directed three Broadway plays—Daphne Lauriola, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and Hilda Crane—in the last of which Tandy starred, but they failed to find an audience. However, the couple enjoyed their greatest success during this period with Jan de Hartog’s 1951 two-character play The Fourposter, in which the course of a marriage, with all its rewards and tribulations, was traced over thirty-five years.
Cronyn’s love for the theater never wavered, and his work as actor, director, and even writer took him to theaters across the United States and Canada, as well as London, England. From the early 1960s, he gave exceptional support to the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and he continued to act in or direct both Broadway and touring productions of new plays and classical plays by Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Beckett, and others. His performance as Polonius in the 1964 production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton, earned him a Tony Award as Best Actor in a Supporting or Featured Role (Dramatic). He also gave adroit performances in such Broadway plays as Big Fish, Little Fish (1961), for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Actor; The Physicists (1964); and A Delicate Balance (1966), for which he received another Tony nomination for Best Actor. In 1966 Cronyn became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
It was appearing jointly with Jessica Tandy that brought Cronyn his greatest satisfaction. In 1953 and 1954 they costarred in The Marriage, a radio and, subsequently, television series about a middle-class couple with two children. During the 1950s, they toured with several staged programs of readings: in 1954 with Face to Face, an anthology of readings from various literary sources, and in 1957 with Triple Play, a bill of three one-act plays and a monologue. However, one of their greatest stage triumphs occurred two decades later, with D. L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1977 drama The Gin Game, in which they played two elderly people in a nursing home who gradually expose their bittersweet lives over continuing games of gin rummy. Cronyn received a Tony nomination for Best Actor and a second nomination as coproducer of the play. They repeated their roles on television in 1981.
The couple also appeared on Broadway in Foxfire (1982), a play about the travails of an Appalachian family, which Cronyn wrote in collaboration with Susan Cooper, and in The Petition (1986), a two-character play concerning a retired English general and his wife, for which he received another Tony nomination as Best Actor. Cronyn and Susan Cooper also wrote a television version of Harriette Arnow’s best-selling novel The Dollmaker (1984), for which Cronyn received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series or Special.
In later years, Cronyn and Tandy could also be relied on to bring expertise and charm to their film roles as husband and wife in such films as Cocoon (1985), *batteries not included (1987), and Cocoon: The Return (1988). Their final appearance together was in the television play To Dance with the White Dog (1993), which Susan Cooper adapted from Terry Kay’s novel about an elderly widower (Cronyn) who recalls his happy life with his late wife (Tandy) when a mysterious white dog appears on his property. Cronyn won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for his performance. On his own, Cronyn also had key roles in the feature films The Parallax View (1974), The World According to Garp (1982), The Pelican Brief (1993), and the made-for-cable television film of 12 Angry Men (1997), for which he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie.
Over the years, Cronyn received many awards, either singly or as a couple with Tandy. In 1979 he was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in recognition of his contributions to American theater, and in 1986 he and Tandy were both recepients of the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1989 the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences paid tribute to Cronyn and Tandy for fifty years of television performances. The following year, Cronyn received the 1990 National Medal of Arts, awarded by the president of the United States at the White House, in special recognition of his outstanding contribution to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States. That same year, Cronyn won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for Age-Old Friends. Cronyn and Tandy, together, were given a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. Tandy died of cancer in 1994; two years later, in July of 1996, Cronyn married his writing partner, Susan Cooper. He died of prostate cancer on 15 June 2003.
Whether playing a sadistic villain or a wily old codger, Cronyn was a consummate actor who brought a joy for life and a reverence for his craft to every role. At his memorial service at the Shubert Theater, his voice could be heard responding to a question as to why he loved being an actor. “I enjoy it,” he replied. “Why? Because it is a lovely escape from the Hume Cronyn I live with every day.”
Hume Cronyn’s autobiography is A Terrible Liar: A Memoir (1991). An article on the memorial service held for him at the Shubert Theater in New York City is in the New York Times (16 Sept. 2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune (all 17 June 2003).