Obituary: David Early / Longtime Pittsburgh actor on stage, screen

May 30, 1938 - March 23, 2013


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In "I'm Not Rappaport," actor David Early imparted a weathered dignity and street smarts to his character of Midge, the building super. In Samuel Hazo's "Solos," he was an energetic standout.

Mr. Early put his made-for-voiceover tones to good use as one of five storytellers reading Ray Bradbury stories for the Prime Stage Theatre, appeared in an evergreen episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" about preparing for school, taught acting and volunteered for 10 of the dozen "Off the Record" charity spoofs.

For those revues, the Pittsburgh actor played everyone from a PennDOT crew chief and Darth Vader to Lloyd McClendon, Sala Udin and a balletic Lynn Swann.

Mr. Early, an actor who also developed cult followings thanks to roles in "Dawn of the Dead," "Creepshow" and a George Romero-penned episode of "Tales From the Darkside" alongside a doomed Jerry Stiller, died Saturday of cancer at the home of his daughter, Davina Reid, in Clearwater, Fla. He was 74.

Born in East Liberty, he graduated from Peabody High School and served in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine before earning a bachelor of science degree in elementary education in 1971 from the University of Pittsburgh.

"After teaching at Falk [School] for a while, he moved to L.A., but then I was born and my parents decided that they didn't want to raise me in L.A. and they moved back to Pittsburgh," in 1975, Mrs. Reid said.

Mr. Early put his acting and vocal talents to work for his children, who also include a son, Joseph Early, now in White Plains, N.Y., and cousin, Sabrina Crawford, also White Plains, who is like a sister to Joseph and Davina.

Whether manipulating puppets or bringing books to life, he had a magical touch. "The storytelling was awesome, because, of course, he's acting out all the characters in the books," Mrs. Reid said. He had a passion for the process of acting, whether on stage or screen, or in a classroom or recording studio.

He is part of the fabric of Pittsburgh's filmography, appearing in such movies as "The Silence of the Lambs," "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" and "One for the Money."

Mr. Early returned to his alma mater of Pitt years later as an instructor in theater arts, taught at Pittsburgh Filmmakers for 20-plus years and spent years with the Pittsburgh Public Theater education outreach program. He also coordinated an apprenticeship program through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit allowing students to explore careers in two dozen fields.

He, Holly Thuma and Rob Zellers created a program of creative dramatics at the Public in 1993. It brought together pairs of schools from diverse parts of town to work on a theater project for 12 weeks and present it on stage.

"Part drama, part team building, part sociology lesson, the program is still going strong today," Mr. Zellers, education director, said Tuesday, remembering the man known as "Mr. David" to fifth-graders.

"He said to me once that he could not have asked for a better life than he's had in Pittsburgh -- to be able to act on local stages, appear in films and, most importantly, affect so many young lives. I believe if he had one final message for his students, he would remind them always to find the flow and courageously remove the mask."

At Filmmakers, he taught acting for the camera, a class that attracted performers along with directors who wanted to better understand the actor's role. When Brady Lewis, director of education at Filmmakers, wondered about the best way to cast actors for his film "Daddy Cool," Mr. Early talked him through it -- and also scored a small role as a salesman in a bar.

"He came and sat in on some of the auditions with me. He was really helpful, sort of a gentle guy," he said, an instructor students could comfortably relate to, a man without pretense.

Mr. Early's own stage work took him to venues such as the Apple Hill Playhouse, Fulton Theater, Carnegie Lecture Hall, and City Theatre.

Susan Blackman, managing director of Prime Stage Theatre, had been delighted when he agreed to participate in an evening of five short stories by Mr. Bradbury at the New Hazlett Theater.

"The story he read was based on Poe's 'House of Usher,' and it was full of vivid imagery and dark humor. David brought his personality to that evening, and we were lucky to have him there," she said.

In addition to his children, Mr. Early is survived by two brothers, Emery Early of Greenfield and Kenneth Early of East Liberty.

His family plans a memorial service at Coston Funeral Home, 427 Lincoln Ave., Larimer at 11 a.m. Saturday.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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