Ruth Bass | For actor Bill Swan, the phone rang year after year after year

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RICHMOND — Thousands of theatergoers and television watchers saw Bill Swan in his role of skilled actor, but he was also a storyteller with a prodigious memory. Add the Hollywood scene, and Bill sounded like a celebrity name-dropper. But he knew these people as friends, and for more than 50 years, he nurtured those friendships.

So, when he mentioned Loretta Young, Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Julie Harris, he wasn't showing off. Indicative of his authenticity was a story he told of being with Hepburn when she was shoveling snow off her sidewalk in New York. (That's a nice picture in itself.) It was not long after the death of actress Joan Crawford. A man came along, looked at Hepburn and said, "Didn't you used to be Joan Crawford?" And Hepburn answered, "Not anymore."

William Swan on stage or screen and Bill everywhere else, he played the role of 97-year-old Nonno in "Night of the Iguana" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in August of 2006. That appearance brought his professional life full circle because the show opened on the same stage where he had played summer stock at the age of 22. Three years later, scouts looking for likely young actors saw him at what was then called the Berkshire Playhouse, and he was off to California for 30 years of movie and television roles.

But the Berkshires remained close to his heart, and he and his partner of 40 years, the late Dick Dunlap, created a charming home in Monterey where celebrities and more ordinary people enjoyed their hospitality. Bill died last month at the age of 90, still a resident of Berkshire County.

At the time of his appearance in "Night of the Iguana," he came to Richmond for lunch and a delightful time of eating and storytelling and interviewing. So, this is where plagiarism begins — I am going to plagiarize from my own story, done in 2006 for The Paper, a feature publication of the former Independent weekly in Hillsdale, N.Y. (Or maybe it's regurgitation, not plagiarism.) In any case, what follows is mostly a repeat of a few hours of vintage Swan.

He recalled the day he met Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland during the 1964 filming of "Lady in a Cage." Havilland, as he called her, stepped out of her trailer on the set and looked at him saying, "You are my son. And I know who your father is — Henry Fonda — you look just like him." Bill remembered she was wearing a Dior suit. His career was launched. It would include crisscrossing the country in regional theaters from Seattle to Cincinnati to Stockbridge. He had more than 200 roles in popular shows like the Perry Mason series, Alcoa Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre and How to Marry a Millionaire, many of them shot live rather than taped. Avid soap watchers may have seen Bill during his one-year stint on "The Young and the Restless," his three years on "As the World Turns," or the 19-year run he had with "All My Children," starting in 1982.

He admitted that his soap opera parts came at an opportune time, the point in an actor's career when you start worrying about whether you will be wanted. "You sit there with the telephone receiver," he said, "but it's stopped ringing." Obviously, for this tall, silver-haired, handsome man, it kept ringing, right up to 2006. While most of the world would agree that Swan was handsome, he told us he'd never really liked his looks. Perhaps he needed a new mirror. His voice was also an asset, resonant and firm, easy to recognize across a crowded room.Like many parents of aspiring actors and actresses, Swan's didn't approve of his career aspirations. But he joined the Army, was stationed in Europe in the postwar years and then used the GI Bill of Rights to realize his dream of drama school.

Some of his best stories involved the late Maureen Stapleton. At the memorial service for her, he was one of the speakers and told of sitting with her, Patricia Neal and Gregory Peck one night after the Academy Awards. Stapleton was never a shy flower, and she looked at Peck and said, "I love you you're not a lot of laughs, but I love you." As he reeled off one anecdote after another for us, it was clear that he liked to get beneath the glamor and the grease paint and talk about his celebrity friends as humans, always with affection, never mean.

In his long career, the phone rang often, frequently from Stockbridge. His appearance in 100 productions there — the last being "Iguana" — reportedly still stands as more productions than any other actor on that stage. Just for the record, he was wrong about his looks and so was Havilland. He didn't look like Henry Fonda.

Ruth Bass is author of three historical novels. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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