Ron Leibman, an actor whose career of more than six decades in film, television and the theater was highlighted by a Tony Award in 1993 for his electrifying performance as Roy Cohn in the first part of “Angels in America,” died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 82.
A spokeswoman for the actress Jessica Walter, his wife, said the cause was pneumonia.
Mr. Leibman already had Drama Desk Awards for “We Bombed in New Haven” (1969) and “Transfers” (1970) as well as an Emmy for the short-lived CBS series “Kaz” (1979) when he took on the role of Cohn in “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s monumental two-part play about homosexuality and the age of AIDS. Cohn, a conservative lawyer and closeted gay man who was once chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and who died of AIDS in 1986, is a central figure in the work.
“Mr. Leibman, red-faced and cackling, is a demon of Shakespearean grandeur,” Frank Rich wrote of the performance in “Millennium Approaches,” the first part of “Angels,” when he reviewed its Broadway premiere in The New York Times in May 1993, “an alternately hilarious and terrifying mixture of chutzpah and megalomania, misguided brilliance and relentless cunning. He turns the mere act of punching telephone buttons into a grotesque manipulation of the levers of power.”
The performance brought Mr. Leibman the Tony for best actor in a play, one of four Tonys earned by Part 1. He also portrayed Cohn in Part 2, “Perestroika,” which had its Broadway premiere that November, earning a Drama Desk nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a play.
So striking was Mr. Leibman’s portrayal that no less an actor than F. Murray Abraham, an Oscar winner, found him a hard act to follow when he took over as Cohn in 1994.
“I found myself doing Ron,” Mr. Abraham told The Times. “Doing his voice. His mannerisms. It was exasperating.”
Mr. Leibman was often asked what it was like to play a widely reviled real-life figure like Cohn.
“If, as an actor, you’re going to portray any human being, you’d best not have an attitude about that person,” he said in 1993. “If I had to make a moral judgment about every character, I wouldn’t play Richard III, I wouldn’t play Macbeth, or Coriolanus, or King Lear. Cohn was a human being.”
Ron Leibman was born on Oct. 11, 1937, in Manhattan to Murray and Grace (Marx) Leibman. His father worked in the garment industry, and his mother was a homemaker.
After a childhood that included several serious illnesses, he enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University, where he discovered his love for the theater. After graduating, he spent time with the Compass Players, an improvisational troupe that performed in Chicago and St. Louis in the mid-1950s, then returned to New York and joined the Actors Studio, supporting himself with work as a shoe salesman and cabdriver.
Mr. Leibman was first and foremost a stage actor. His first professional role was in a summer theater production of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” One of his first New York appearances was in 1959 as Orpheus in a production of Jean Anouilh’s “Legend of Lovers” at the 41st Street Theater.
He made his Broadway debut in March 1963 in the comedy “Dear Me, the Sky Is Falling,” and over the next year had minor roles in two other Broadway plays, “The Deputy” and “Bicycle Ride to Nevada.”
In 1967 he was in the premiere of Joseph Heller’s antiwar black comedy “We Bombed in New Haven” at the Yale School of Drama Repertory Theater in New Haven, along with several other actors who would soon be better known.
“Stacy Keach evokes a terrible tattered passion as the ramrod-straight, chicken-hearted captain,” Clive Barnes wrote in a review in The Times, “and he is perfectly matched by Ron Leibman, moving from the flip to the hunted, as the sergeant who doesn’t want to die.” Estelle Parsons was also in the cast.
Mr. Leibman stayed with the show when it moved to Broadway in 1968. His next Broadway appearance was in 1969 in a one-act, “Cop-Out,” which was most notable for his playing opposite Linda Lavin. They married that year and divorced in 1981.
Mr. Leibman’s other Broadway credits included the Neil Simon comedy “Rumors,” in 1988, joining a cast that also included Christine Baranski. Mr. Rich, in a mixed review, found the play amusing “provided that either Ron Leibman or Christine Baranski is kvelling at center stage.”
Mr. Leibman’s “Angels” performance, his last on Broadway, was still reverberating in the Manhattan air in 1995 when he played Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” at the Public Theater.
“This is a harrowing, fierce and complicated performance,” Linda Winer wrote in Newsday, “one that, consciously or not, makes a seductive ancestral connection between oppression and accommodation, between the hurt Jewish moneylender with his demand for a ‘pound of flesh’ and Cohn, the flamboyantly amoral New York lawyer.”
Mr. Leibman’s television and film career was less extensive than his stage work. Among his film highlights was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the 1972 movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, in which he played the prisoner of war Lazzaro. Kevin Kelly, writing in The Boston Globe, called his performance “fierce and frightening.”
His character in “Kaz,” the CBS series for which he won an Emmy (and which he also helped write), also had an edge; here he was an offbeat lawyer who earned his law degree in prison. In an April 1979 interview with The Times, Mr. Leibman vented about the network’s handling of the series, which had made its debut the previous fall but was not given a consistent schedule.
“I mean, how can a show make it if you pre-empt it eight out of 12 weeks for things like ‘Marlon Brando Sings the Favorites of Mickey Rooney’?” he said.
His concerns were well founded. Despite his Emmy, the series was canceled after one season.
Mr. Leibman also played a labor lawyer in the 1979 film “Norma Rae” — a role he credited with convincing casting directors that he could play something other than an unhinged guy, as he had been in “We Bombed in New Haven,” “Slaughterhouse-Five” and the 1970 movie “Where’s Poppa?’”
“I would have walked down the street naked to get that part,” he said.
Mr. Leibman and Ms. Walter married in 1983. They had recently both been voicing characters on the animated series “Archer.” In addition to her, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Brooke Bowman, and a grandson.
In a 2011 interview with the website AV Club, Mr. Leibman said it was his stepdaughter who had encouraged him to take a part on television that he had initially rejected, not being familiar with the show. It was a recurring role on “Friends” as the father of Rachel Green, Jennifer Aniston’s character. He was a little confused at first.
“When I first came on,” he said, “I didn’t know who was who, because I’d never seen the show. So I started talking to Lisa Kudrow, thinking she was Jennifer Aniston. I had no idea.”