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Epilogue | Paul Massie

Actor Paul Massie left fame, burgeoning career to teach at USF

In the 1960s, a young, strikingly handsome and phenomenally talented actor named Paul Massie was building a promising career in England.

He had starred in an acclaimed production of Cat on a Hot Tim Roof opposite Kim Stanley. There were leading roles in respected films, with billings above such stars as Christopher Lee and Lillian Gish. He had won a British Academy Award. Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris were his drinking buddies.

But in 1966, he visited the fledgling University of South Florida to appear on stage as a guest artist. He stayed for 30 years as a professor in the USF theater department.

"He was a world-class artist who came to USF and embraced us," said Nancy Cole, who worked with Mr. Massie for 20 years.

Mr. Massie died Wednesday at his home in Nova Scotia. He was 79 and had suffered from lymphoma.

During his three decades in Tampa, Mr. Massie became a fixture on local stages. Many of his memorable roles came from productions at USF, including A Little Night Music, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Orphans, Waiting for Godot, Equus and The Tempest.

He also acted in most other local theater companies, including guest roles with the School of Night comedy group, in which he narrated Horton Hears a Who and pulled off a spot-on impersonation of Mick Jagger.

But it was as an educator and a director of student productions, from Hair to The Magic Flute that Mr. Massie left his most essential legacy.

"Paul was magical," said Brian Shea, a professional actor who was a friend and student of Mr. Massie's. "He had a profound effect on me and others, not only as actors, but as human beings."

Mr. Massie was born in Canada but established his presence on the stage and screen in England. His first major film role came in 1958, in Orders to Kill with Eddie Albert. Mr. Massie received the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film. He worked steadily in films and television after that, with the lead role in 1960's The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and a guest appearance on the classic TV show The Avengers.

His association with USF began in a 1966 production of Tartuffe, and not long after he performed in USF's production of School for Scandal.

He was a fixture at USF from that point on, although he didn't officially become a faculty member until about 1974. He became a full professor, and was named professor emeritus after his retirement in 1996.

He didn't often speak to students about his early career and nascent celebrity. Even those who knew him for decades weren't sure why he turned his back on a high-profile acting career to teach at a university in Florida.

"I think maybe he was just fed up with the machine," Cole said. "I think he had had enough of the effort, the grind, that goes into fame."

Whatever the reason, he soon found that he loved teaching as much as he loved acting, and working in Tampa gave him the opportunity to do both.

As a teacher and director, he was known for finding a way to get the best performances from actors. It may have been tender encouragement for a young actor trying to find his way through his art and his life, or it may have been a boisterous laugh of delight when a cast finally perfected a scene. Sometimes, it was harsh criticism.

In one moment that has become legendary in local theater circles, Mr. Massie was watching a rehearsal in which he thought actors weren't giving their best. "There's a problem with the acting," he said. "You can't. So don't."

As an actor, he had a natural energy and charisma — sex appeal, some would say — and a booming but mellifluous voice.

And, Cole said, he devoted himself completely to his roles and in the process elevated the performers around him.

"For students to be able to share the stage with a actor of his talent and experience and to see how he prepares, that's a profound gift to the cast and to the audience," she said. "He was a hero."

Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Actor Paul Massie left fame, burgeoning career to teach at USF 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 8:45pm]
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