In a Brooklyn basement, Bernie Friedkin found his first instrument — a ukulele he pulled out of a trash pile and taught himself to play. He was 5.
Over the years, the barber's son learned to play the saxophone and the clarinet, too. During World War II, when the Army dispatched his unit to Africa, to Italy and to France, he played in the regimental band, carried stretchers and served as a French interpreter.
Then a leg wound sent him back to England. He spent the rest of the war playing and singing in USO shows that featured such big-name bandleaders as Harry James. Then he came home to New York, to a job with the Veterans Administration, and the spotlight faded.
But not for long.
When he retired at age 55 and moved to Clearwater with his wife, Ann, Mr. Friedkin got an Actor's Equity card and took to the stage.
First cast in a small role as a slovenly doctor, he milked the bit for all it was worth. When the script called for him to pull his stethoscope out of his bag, he made a show of first pulling out a salami, an apron and several other incongruous items, to the delight of the audience.
The director offered him $75 a week, recalled Mrs. Friedkin.
"Bernie would've done it for free," she said. "He would have rather acted than worked at the VA. But it's hard to make a living as an actor."
After that auspicious start, he never lacked for roles, mostly in musicals that showcased his singing. He was in Cabaret, Guys and Dolls and Hello, Dolly. He played Fagan in Oliver! and Mr. Mushkin the florist in Little Shop of Horrors.
Somehow, even though he was 30 years too old, he even played the ambitious young executive J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
He had roles in Moliere's School for Wives, and less distinguished fare like Son of Hot Pants. His favorite: Tevye, the buoyant, Bible-quoting dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof.
Mr. Friedkin became a staple of the Showboat Dinner Theatre in Clearwater. Later he and his wife bought a Winnebago and traveled widely, giving him a chance to act in venues around the country. He never played Broadway, though. The closest he got was New Jersey.
Still, he learned his lines quickly and always kept a tight focus on his performance. Once, when a co-star accidentally knocked him over during The Owl and the Pussycat, he kept going, despite the fact that his ear was bleeding.
"He never lost his place," said his sister-in-law, Lois Linett.
He performed in shows with fading stars like James "the Virginian" Drury as well as celebrities like congressional sex scandal figure Elizabeth Ray and Deep Throat's Linda Lovelace.
The big names came to appreciate Mr. Friedkin's dedication to his craft. While appearing in a Showboat production with Robert "Love That Bob" Cummings in 1976, the two actors became good friends, calling each other "Uncle Bob" and "Uncle Bernie." Later they took their wives for a joint vacation at a Romanian health spa.
As he grew older, though, Mr. Friedkin's phenomenal memory faltered. More than just his acting suffered.
In his final years, he no longer recognized the woman he'd married two weeks after Pearl Harbor, or their daughter Barbara, a piano teacher who regularly played old standards for his Alzheimer's ward in North Carolina.
Then one day he showed his family some yellowed sheets of paper he had found. He beamed.
"These are the songs I wrote," he said, and then sang them, word for word, from memory —even though he had composed them in the 1940s, when he was overseas and missing his new bride.
"He wrote me those songs," Mrs. Friedkin said. "They were love songs to me."
It was his final performance. He died Feb. 1 at age 92.
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.