Frank Buxton, iconic Bainbridge Island stage presence and lifetime show biz polymath, reportedly died at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 2, surrounded by family and friends. He was 87.
A founding member of The EDGE Improv on Bainbridge Island, Buxton was as renowned for his work as an actor-writer-director-producer for the stage and screen as for his own comedic chops. He won numerous awards throughout his lengthy, storied career, and worked alongside such titans as Buster Keaton and Robin Williams, among others.
“Frank has been a steady source of laughter and inspiration at Bainbridge Performing Arts for nearly 25 years,” said BPA spokeswoman Sally Jo Martine. “He will be sorely missed by BPA’s board, staff, patrons, and community of artisans, but his spirit will continue to guide us with humor, humanity, and wisdom.”
He is survived by his wife, Cynthia Lovelace Sears. Memorial services have yet to be announced.
Buxton was perhaps best known to most as the voice of the Grand Old Fourth of July parade, which he and his wife cohosted for nearly a decade. He was awarded the Arts and Humanities Bainbridge Island Treasure award in 2010, alongside Kathleen Alcalá.
According to his biography at the Internet Movie Database, Buxton was born in Wellesley, Massachusetts on Feb. 13, 1930.
He grew up in Larchmont, New York, graduated from Northwestern University and Syracuse University and, after service in the Army in the Korean War, began working in local television as a producer-director in Buffalo, New York and Chicago. He then began his performing career as a stand-up comedian, TV host (“Discovery,” “Get the Message”) and stage performer (“Brigadoon,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Tender Trap” and others).
His television writing, producing and directing work included “The Odd Couple” (1970), “Happy Days” (1974) and “Mork & Mindy” (1978), among many others, and he created the Peabody Award-winning series “Hot Dog” (1970) for NBC, which starred Woody Allen and Jonathan Winters.
As a film and TV actor, he appeared in “Overboard” (1987), “Beaches” (1988), “Frankie and Johnny” (1991), “Face of a Stranger” (1991), “With a Vengeance” (1992) and “Roomates” (1994), as well as many series and specials.
He wrote and created voices for Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” (1966) and did further voice work for innumerable cartoon and commercial projects.
Tributes were plentiful in the wake of the announcement of Buxton’s death, including the scheduling of a special “All About Frank” performance by The EDGE at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6 at BPA.
“Frank had a marvelous way of helping us navigate difficult moments with humor,” said BPA executive director Dominique Cantwell. “I hope that friends will join us to channel his energy as we try to pilot onward through this particularly hard one.”
To honor Buxton’s legacy of generosity, BPA officials announced, all remaining tickets to the Jan. 6 performance will be free of charge.
Donations to the Hot Dog! Fund, a charitable endeavor cofounded by Buxton, will be accepted at the door.
Tickets are now available at www.bainbridgeperform ingarts.org and through the box office at 206-842-8569.
Seating is very limited, and advanced reservations are strongly recommended.
John Ellis, Buxton’s friend and fellow cofounder of The EDGE, said Bainbridge Island was a better place for having had a friend as stalwart and tireless as Buxton.
“He was such a gift to our community,” Ellis said.
“I think one of the most important things about Frank is that he loved this community. There’s a lot of love for him from this community, and it was reciprocal. He loved Bainbridge,” Ellis said. “When he and Cynthia came here in ’89, it didn’t take long for their roots to just sink into the ground, and they’ve been such a big benefit for the community.”
A previous cold holiday season, much like the one just passed, sprang to mind when Ellis recalled he and Buxton’s time on stage together.
“I remember the first time he and I did the [holiday] tree-lighting ceremony,” he said. “It was freezing cold and the mics weren’t working and whatever — didn’t matter. We were going to do it.
“The thing that always really shone about Frank was his absolute dedication to professionalism, whether he was doing ‘Mork & Mindy’ or a tree-lighting ceremony on Bainbridge Island,” Ellis added. “Everything was all about his absolute dedication to professionalism and doing the best show possible for the people around him.”
Ellis wrote of Buxton’s passing, a portrait of a passionate professional engaged in his life’s work to the end: “He’d been struggling with heart issues for some time but had gotten stronger with a lot of work and support from his wonderful family and community. Things had been pretty damn good until very recently. He even got back on stage with The EDGE in November, and a week before his final trip to the hospital, he was singing up a storm at a workshop.
“His exit line was perfectly Frank!” Ellis wrote. “We sang some songs [on] Christmas Eve and at the end of the last song, he closed his eyes, dropped his hand from his chest, opened his hand and whispered, ‘Rosebud.’ We all laughed (including Frank) and we left his room, but as far as we know that was his exit line.”
Buxton’s friend and admirer Mark Evanier commemorated the island icon’s passing in a lengthy passage posted at his personal blog.
“I want to go like he did…and I think I’ll even steal his exit line,” he wrote. “He was truly one of my heroes and it was an honor to know him.”
Buxton, Evanier recalled, was, in addition to his other professional accomplishments, also an author. He cowrote what has been called the definitive book on the golden age of radio: “Big Broadcast, 1920-1950.”
Some sections of the book, and some of his own later stage work, came about from Buxton’s tenacious love of collecting — some times through less than completely honest means, Ellis recalled.
“When he was a teenager he’d put on a suit and tie and go into New York from Larchmont, where he was living, and he would sneak into the radio stations and they’d finish with their shows and dump their scripts, because they were done with them, and he would scavenge all these scripts,” Ellis said.
“He’s been a collector all his life and he would collect these scripts and I’ve seen some of those scripts … and when we recreated those shows, some of that was from his collection that he pilfered when he was a kid.”
It was incredibly surreal, Evanier wrote, to come to know the guy he’d seen on screen so often.
“For years, I assumed that the Frank Buxton who worked on all those sitcoms was a different Frank Buxton from the guy I enjoyed watching on ‘Discovery,’” he wrote. “It simply didn’t occur to me that one man could be so diverse and so talented. I soon learned they were one and the same, and that he was one of the nicest, cleverest people I would ever meet.”
Ellis agreed, saying his friend was, “There for early television, he was a fan of radio, he was theater nut, he was a television writer [and] he was a movie buff, the like of which we will not see again.”