Brian Murray, a busy actor who made his first Broadway appearance in 1965 in the Bill Naughton comedy “All in Good Time” and his last one 46 years later in “The Importance of Being Ernest,” died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 80.
His agent, Jonathan Herzog, confirmed the death, at Lenox Hill Hospital, but did not specify a cause.
Mr. Murray was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England before making his mark in New York, and his best-known Broadway role was Shakespeare-ish: He was Rosencrantz in the 1967 Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” based on two minor characters in “Hamlet.”
John Wood portrayed the other title character, and Clive Barnes, reviewing the play in The New York Times, said the two “play against each other like tennis singles champions.”
“And luckily,” he added, “this is a game where neither needs to win and both can share the trophy.” (Both men were nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play, but neither got the trophy.)
Mr. Murray also became known late in his career for some memorable stage pairings with Marian Seldes, including in Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” in 2001, presented Off Broadway at Century Center for the Performing Arts.
“Once Mr. Murray and Ms. Seldes take charge,” Ben Brantley wrote in his review in The Times, “ ‘Baby’ rockets into that special corner of theater heaven where words shoot off like fireworks into dazzling patterns and hues.”
Mr. Murray was also an accomplished director, including on Broadway; one of his notable productions was a 1986 revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the 46th Street Theater with Tony Roberts and Jean Stapleton.
He appeared in movies and on television as well, but the stage, he said, was always his favorite.
“I can’t live without the other character: the audience,” Mr. Murray said in 1996. “I don’t know how one can survive as an actor without sharing the same experience in the same room.”
He was born Brian Anthony Bell on Sept. 10, 1937, in Johannesburg to Alfred and Mary Dickson (Murray) Bell. He eventually took his mother’s maiden name as his professional name. His father was a golfer. His mother was a dancer and encouraged her son’s performing aspirations.
Mr. Murray began acting as a child in South Africa, then moved to England, where he played — in his words — “lower-class hoodlums” on television and in films like “The Angry Silence” (1960).
He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961. A pivotal moment, he told The Times in 1996, came when he was compelled to move up from a small role into the role of Romeo with only five days’ preparation. He realized, he said, that until then he “had gotten away with being cocky and facile” and that he now had to learn, instantly, the difference between that and “real acting.”
He stayed with the Shakespeare company for four years, then, attracted by the vitality of the American theater scene, emigrated to the United States.
In addition to his Tony nomination for “Rosencrantz,” he was nominated for his work in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” in 1997 and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 2002. But Broadway was only a part of his career, which included numerous acting roles Off Broadway and in regional theaters.
In the span of a year, 1995-96, he received good notices in three very different New York productions. He transformed himself into nine different characters in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Travels With My Aunt” at the Minetta Lane Theater. He was a gay priest in David Hare’s “Racing Demon” at Lincoln Center. And then, in Joe Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” at Classic Stage Company, he played a character named Ed, an unscrupulous entrepreneur.
“Murray couldn’t be better as Ed,” Greg Evans wrote in Variety, “alternately buffoonish, cruel and shrewd, and sometimes all at once.”
Mr. Murray’s last stage appearance was in “Simon Says” at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on the Lower East Side. He leaves no immediate survivors.
Mr. Murray was attentive to the wishes of whatever playwright he was interpreting. He once spoke admirably of Mr. Albee’s exacting language, and even his stage directions.
“He’ll make a very slight stage direction,” Mr. Murray said. “Just a nuance: ‘A little embarrassed.’ A little embarrassed is something that you have to find. It’s not embarrassed. Embarrassed is one thing. A little embarrassed is something else.”