Lew Palter, the veteran character actor and admired CalArts School of Theater faculty member who portrayed the department store magnate Isidor Straus in James Cameron’s Titanic, has died. He was 94.
Palter died May 21 of lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles, his daughter, Catherine Palter, told The Hollywood Reporter.
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The New York native played one of the Supreme Court justices in First Monday in October (1981), starring Walter Matthau, Jill Clayburgh and Barnard Hughes, and he donned a robe for stints on The Flying Nun, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law as well.
Plus, he portrayed an LAPD detective on the 1976-77 CBS series Delvecchio, starring Judd Hirsch.
Palter joined CalArts in 1971 and served as an acting teacher and director at the Santa Clarita school until his retirement in 2013, but he also conducted private workshops and taught around the country and around the world, including in Edinburgh and at Carnegie Mellon and UCLA.
“Lew loved the craft of acting and taught his students to do the same. He fostered deep curiosity, care, intellect and humor in every scene, play and class,” CalArts School of Theater Dean Travis Preston said in a statement. “He had the utmost respect of his students and encouraged all to find truth in their work and lives.”
His thousands of students over the years included Ed Harris, Don Cheadle and Cecily Strong, whom he encouraged to try out for the improv group The Groundlings on the way to her breakout gig on Saturday Night Live.
“As a teacher, he seemed to have truly changed people’s lives,” his daughter said.
Leon Louis Palter was born on Nov. 3, 1928. He graduated from Tufts University, then earned his master’s degree from Alfred University and his Ph.D. in theater from Northwestern University. In between, he enlisted and served in the U.S. Army.
Palter acted in and directed plays off-Broadway before joining the Millbrook Playhouse in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1960s. He then made his onscreen debut on a 1967 episode of NBC’s Run for Your Life and appeared on It Takes a Thief, The Virginian, Gunsmoke and Mission: Impossible before the decade was done.
In Titanic (1997), Palter as Isidor and Elsa Raven as his wife, Ida, memorably appear in a montage embracing on a bed in their stateroom as the water rushes in and the ship’s string quartet plays the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Isidor, who co-owned Macy’s with his brother, and Ida were two of the wealthiest passengers to perish on the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. He refused to board a lifeboat when the ship was sinking because there were women and children who had yet to get on one, and his wife would not leave without him.
(Wendy Rush, the wife of Stockton Rush, the OceanGate CEO who died last week while piloting the submersible that imploded during a dive to the Titanic wreckage, is a great-great-granddaughter of the Strauses.)
Palter was the third actor in a film about the tragedy to play Isidor, following Roy Gordon in the Jean Negulesco-directed Titanic (1953) and Meier Tzelniker in Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958).
His acting résumé also included the 1971 film The Steagle and installments of The Doris Day Show, Columbo, The Brady Bunch, Baretta, The Waltons, Cagney & Lacey and The A-Team.
Palter also directed the comedy Nuts for the Los Angeles Stage Company for years before it was adapted for the 1987 film that starred and was produced by Barbra Streisand.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his grandchildren, Sam, Tessa and Miranda.
His wife of 64 years, actress Nancy Vawter, died in November 2020. Catherine Palter said her mom’s agent had put her up for the part of Ida in Titanic but was told producers were “looking for a different type of actress.”
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