Robert Prosky, the venerable Washington actor who died this week at 77 was a uniquely stunning talent. His comfortable, pillowy face was a face Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller must have envisioned. Prosky was everyman who has suffered pain or defeat; a face you would have seen in a working stiff’s bar downing a shot of Three Feathers and nursing a National Bohemian beer. And he was a consummate actor who owned every role I’d ever seen him perform.
When news of his death came by e-mail from the Helen Hayes Awards offices, it was hard not to stop and think of the impact this man had during all his years appearing here, especially at Arena Stage, which was his home. His career reached back to the late 1950s when there wasn’t much live theatre in Washington. It was the culturally barren time before the Kennedy Center was build or Ford’s Theatre reopened, and before the explosive growth of talent-filled professional theater that makes this city one of the best theater towns in the United States. Even then, people who saw him perform, talk about how special he was. He helped Washingtonians realize that Washington had the potential to become a great theater town.
His career expanded beyond Washington to a staring role as the roll call police sergeant in the 1980s television drama Hill Street Blues, as well as several roles in films like The Natural, Broadcast News and Mrs. Doubtfire. No matter how small the character part, Prosky dominated the stage or the screen. He always attracted all my attention and I felt special pride that he was the Washington hometown boy who made good and he always came back home to work here, in the city he loved.
In Japan, an artist of Prosky’s stature would have been honored with the title – National Treasure. We don’t appreciate our great artists in the same way. The Kennedy Center Honors falls far short in it’s annual honors extravaganza. It is a glittery event that sometimes does recognizes deserving talent, but mostly, is it just a money-making fund-raiser for the Kennedy Center and the evening’s producer.
Prosky’s death offers the Helen Hayes Awards an opportunity to raise the level honoring especially talented actors, who like, Prosky, stand far above his fellow performers. If the title National Treasure seems too much of a reach, a special Washington Treasure award in Prosky’s name could be created. Such an award should not be an annual honor and should only be presented when an actor reaches that rare hierarchy of talent that Prosky personified.