It's not the kind of exit actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac would have wanted.

A tall, magnetic performer who was in Penumbra Theatre's very first main stage show and has been a pillar of the storied acting company ever since, El Razzac was driving from California to Tucson on Christmas Day for the first day of rehearsal for "Two Trains Running," the August Wilson play that promised to reunite him with his Penumbra running buddies. Feeling short of breath, he called his wife and told her he was going to pull into a gas station and would ring her back.

He never did.

"They found him dead at the gas station," said his wife, Suzanne Deerly-Johnson. "He had a heart attack brought on by his COPD. It's unfathomable."

El Razzac was 74.

"It's still a shock to all of us," said Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy, who is directing "Two Trains" at the Arizona Theatre Company. "We were supposed to start rehearsal the next day. El Ra died coming to do what he most loved."

And that would be on stage, at St. Paul's Penumbra, where he acted in scores of shows, but also elsewhere in the country as he carried theater's jazz ethos that he helped define. El Razzac was a master of the August Wilson canon, playing street-wise philosopher figures. He knew the characters well, he told the Star Tribune in 2011, because Wilson wrote his plays with his Penumbra company in mind.

And the two men shared a purpose and mission. For El Razzac, as for Wilson, theater wasn't about escapist entertainment. It was a way of showing the majesty of ordinary people, especially African-Americans. "He had such dignity and strength, and he was black to the bust," said Bellamy.

That El Razzac became an actor was a testament to his work ethic and his will. He had a lifelong speech impediment, a sibilant "s," that he used as inspiration, said actor Terry Bellamy, a lifelong friend who appeared in "80 to 90" shows with El Razzac.

That drive was something he learned growing up in Cleveland as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker. Born Allen Johnson, he spent six years in the Air Force stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. "He was proud of his service to his country and always wanted to make it better," said James Craven, another actor.

El Razzac moved to the Twin Cities to pursue acting with a company he co-founded, Mutima. The company eventually folded as he became a Penumbra mainstay. He lived for more than 20 years in the Twin Cities and considered the metro his hometown even though he moved to California in 1989 to further his acting career.

He had small roles in such films as "Terminator II," "Malcolm X" and "Pretty Woman." But his heart belonged to the stage, he told the Star Tribune, especially when he got a chance to essay August Wilson characters.

"August wrote those plays partly about us," he said.

"Whenever I'm out directing, I always get one of those veteran company members if I can, and they anchor the production," said Lou Bellamy. "August wrote all those plays with a wise elder with an African link. Abdul fit that perfectly."

Besides his wife, he is survived by three children in Cleveland: Mia, Akawasiba and Tina Johnson, and stepson Nagai Deerly of Phoenix.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Friday in Long Beach, Calif. Penumbra will schedule a remembrance later.

"Because of his knowledge, his clarity, his work ethic and example, he was a teacher onstage and off," said Jevetta Steele, who played the title character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Guthrie Theater with El Razzac as Toledo, the piano player and band philosopher. "He was the consummate professional who always thought we could do it better. And because of him, we did."