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John Bottoms

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Bottoms as Rabbit Brown in Sam Shepard’s Angel City at A.R.T., 1984.

(1938-2015)
John Bottoms enjoyed a rich, decades-long career as an actor. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, he was part of La Mama Plexus. That troupe’s show Dance Wi’ Me (also called Dance With Me) had a run at the Public Theater and later went to Broadway, with Bottoms earning a Tony nomination for his performance. He appeared in a number of productions at the Public Theater in the 1970s and early ’80s; he played the clownish servant Launce (with his dog Crab) in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which also moved to Broadway. By the 1980s, he had become a member of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he performed in plays by Shakespeare, Molière, O’Neill, Pirandello, Shepard. In A.R.T.’s 1984 production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, he had the part of Clov. That production, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, caused a stir when Beckett objected to her interpretative setting because it veered from his stage directions. However in a positive review of the production, critic Mel Gussow also had high praise for Bottoms’ performance: “Dizzily obeying his master’s whims, the bedraggled Mr. Bottoms is one of the most persuasive Clovs within my memory.”1

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Bottoms as Clov with Ben Halley Jr. as Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at A.R.T., 1984.

In the late 1980s, Bottoms joined the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He was a company member there through the mid-’90s. Not long after his arrival at the Guthrie, he starred as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey and as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Tributes to Bottoms stress his considerable talents as a physical comic actor. When Bottoms spoke to John Engstrom for the Boston Globe in 1985, he explained his instinctual process: “I think I attack everything from the body first, and then the mind catches up.”2

Bottoms’ film credits include Doc, The Traveling Executioner, The Long Riders. He played Charles Ives in A Good Dissonance Like a Man, Ted Timreck’s 1976 docudrama about the composer. Sandra Kingsbury, who was Ives’ wife Harmony in the film, remembers one scene in particular, at the Housatonic River in Massachusetts. “It was a long shot, and our direction was to simply walk beside the Housatonic River,” says Kingsbury. “We were in period costume—a long white dress for me, and I had a parasol—and as we began walking, John as Ives picked up a long stick and a rock and began trying to hit the rock like a baseball. Of course, this made me laugh. He was such a physical actor, and his ability to use that physicality to express character and add life to a scene made him a joy to work with.”3

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Bottoms as Charles Ives in Ted Timreck’s A Good Dissonance Like a Man, 1976.

Bottoms lived at Westbeth in the early 1970s. He moved there with his wife Sue and their children, Caitlin and Christopher. They got “the last available apartment in 1970, completing full occupancy,” says Sue (Binet). “We were on hold as composer Stefan Wolpe had a fire in his duplex and was temporarily housed in our apartment, delaying our move into Westbeth. Six months after we moved in, we were off to Spain with our children to film Doc.4

Caitlin Bottoms-Newby shared these memories of her father: “He raised me within an endearing love for music always — from Vivaldi and Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations by Bach to Bob Marley, the Supremes, Chucky Berry, and Donna Summer … Every Doo-wop song, Dad was singing all the bass background parts. He grew up in the ’50s, and he knew all the songs. My brother and I were beyond tickled when he would sing! When he was in Dance With Me on Broadway, that show was all ’50s, and his acting was all movement. I loved that performance. He took us to many rehearsals, and being a young girl, the 49th Street station with its new orangey red tiles stood out. The many dinners at the Howard Johnson’s on Broadway were some of the favorite things to do with him. He was long and lean. In my eyes, his acting not only encompassed his words and lines, but his full body involvement lent this extra dimension that really pushed my father’s presence on the stage.”5

Notes:

1. Mel Gussow, “Stage: Disputed ‘Endgame’ in Debut,” New York Times, Dec. 20, 1984.

2. Quoted in John Engstrom, “John Bottoms acts instinctively: Tonight’s another opening night for American Rep. mainstay,” Boston Globe, Mar. 27, 1985.

3. Sandra Kingsbury, email message to Terry Stoller, Sept. 10, 2017.
4. Sue Binet, email message to Terry Stoller, Sept. 9, 2017.
5. Caitlin Bottoms-Newby, email message to Terry Stoller, Sept. 16, 2017.

Photo Credits: Bottoms in Angel City at A.R.T. and in Endgame at A.R.T. by Richard Feldman; Bottoms in A Good Dissonance Like a Man courtesy of Ted Timreck.

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