John Bottoms, a Tony-nominated stage and screen actor who was a member of the Guthrie Theater’s acting company in the 1980s and ’90s, died Nov. 22 in Minneapolis, four days after suffering a pulmonary embolism, according to his family. He was 77.
“Besides being a wonderful all-around actor, he was the most gifted physical comedian I’ve ever worked with,” said director Joel Zwick of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame. “He could do things with his body that were amazing, and he had a sense of humor that was highly evolved.”
Zwick met Bottoms in 1968, when both worked on “The Young Master Dante” at an off-Broadway house. Zwick invited Bottoms to join him at La MaMa, producer and director Ellen Stewart’s lab for company-developed experimental works. Bottoms was at La MaMa for five years, developing work in the highly physical style advanced by theater theorist Jerzy Grotowski. The company toured the country and Europe with its shows. One of those shows was “Dance Wit’ Me,” staged by Zwick. It went to Broadway, where Bottoms was nominated for a Tony for playing a dreamer. He also appeared on Broadway as clownish servant Launce in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” directed by Mel Shapiro.
Bottoms also worked for Joe Papp’s Public Theater, acting in the legendary 1978 production of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep. Bottoms later went to Cambridge, Mass., for a memorable 1981 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), playing the wise fool Bottom. He was a founding member of A.R.T., the company at Harvard where he also taught acting.
“Johnny made bold choices and he worked them fearlessly onstage,” said actor Mark Linn-Baker, who played Puck in the “Midsummer” production and acted with Bottoms in other shows. “He was self-educated, so he had this wild imagination that came at things intensely and, sometimes, sideways.”
Bottoms also had roles in movies, including Westerns such as “The Long Riders” and “Doc.”
He moved to the Twin Cities in 1988 to become a member of Garland Wright’s acting company at the Guthrie. Bottoms’ best-known role in Minneapolis was as Elwood P. Dowd, the lead character whose best friend is an imaginary 8-foot-tall white rabbit with a drinking problem, in “Harvey.” He also played Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and acted as a company member for 10 years.
In the Twin Cities, he reunited with Isabell Monk O’Connor, with whom he had performed at the American Repertory Theater in the 1980s.
“As a physical actor, he was a Buster Keaton of the stage,” said O’Connor, who is godmother to one of Bottoms’ daughters, Phoebe. “And he was such a sweet man.”
Born Sept. 14, 1938, in Dayton, Ohio, to a homemaker mother and delivery-truck driver father, John William Bottoms did magic as a little boy before finding his way to the stage. After a short stint in the Army, he worked as a hairdresser and, later, as a floor manager for a Dayton TV station. When he decided to pursue his dream, he got an internship with the Hartford Stage. He never looked back.
“Johnny had a lot of talents and the biggest heart,” said Bonnie Zimering Bottoms, his widow. “Because he was so intense and such a big personality, [his death] leaves a huge hole.”
Besides his wife, survivors include children Dana Reed, of Phoenix; Caitlin Bottoms Newby, of Long Island, N.Y.; Christopher Bottoms and Phoebe Bottoms, of Los Angeles; and Billy Bottoms of Minneapolis. He also leaves a brother, Henry Hauss, of Florida, and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.
“We have a long line of bipolar disorder in our family, which means that my dad would totally envelop himself in whatever he was pursuing,” said Phoebe Bottoms, a stand-up comic and performer. “After he retired from acting, my dad threw himself into drawing, building fish tanks and taking care of Wally, our pampered pet parrot. I can still see him, with his Kindle, obsessing about his hobbies.”