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Tough TV Cop James Gregory

September 19, 2002

James Gregory, the solid character actor known for tough-guy cop roles including Insp. Frank Luger, Hal Linden's superior on television's "Barney Miller," has died. He was 90.

Gregory died Monday of natural causes in Sedona, Ariz., where he had lived since retiring from acting in 1983, said his niece, Laraine Gregory-LaMonte.

Slender with a craggy face, dark wavy hair and commanding sneer, Gregory enjoyed a half-century career with some two-dozen Broadway plays, 50 motion pictures and countless television programs. At his retirement in his early 70s, he was still playing 50-something characters.

Gregory, in the heyday of the "Barney Miller" series in 1979, shrugged off any suggestion that he specialized in portraying law enforcement and military officers, saying: "Most every actor has played a lot of policemen. It's whatever's in vogue." But it was a vogue that seemed to surround Gregory. He made his Broadway debut as a deputy sheriff in "Key Largo" in 1939 and played an Air Force general in the pilot episode in television's groundbreaking "The Twilight Zone" in 1959. A real-life Navy sailor and Marine during World War II, he played John F. Kennedy's commanding officer in the 1962 movie "PT-109," was Dean Martin's superior officer in his Matt Helm detective movies and played an unrecognizable ape general on the 1970 movie "Beneath the Planet of the Apes."

Gregory landed his long-running "Barney Miller" role because of his work as real-life detective Barney Ruditsky in the 1959-62 television series "The Lawless Years." A precursor to "The Untouchables," that series depicted Ruditsky's dealings with New York gangsters in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, with the actual Ruditsky as technical adviser. The series prompted Bronx-born Gregory to relocate to Los Angeles.

A decade and a half later, Danny Arnold, producer and co-creator of "Barney Miller," chose Gregory for Insp. Luger. "He thought," the actor said in 1979, "I had some of the characteristics of Barney Ruditsky, a famous New York rackets cop during Prohibition. Danny was a friend of the real Ruditsky. He borrowed Barney's first name for 'Barney Miller.' " During that series, which ran from 1975 to 1982, Gregory also headed a short-lived related series called "Detective School." Starring as Nick Hannigan, he ran a night school for sleuths, trying to teach homemakers, door-to-door salesmen and shoe store clerks how to become private eyes.

After establishing himself on Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s, Gregory made his motion picture debut in the cop crime drama "Naked City" in 1948. He was on television by 1950, working in the new medium from New York when shows were telecast live.

Adept at Westerns when they were in vogue, he was a regular on three series in the late 1960s, playing President Grant in "The Wild, Wild West," the gruff Major Duncan in the comedy "F Troop" and in a recurring role on Barbara Stanwyck's "The Big Valley." Among his films, Gregory earned particular notice for his performance as Sen. John Yerkes Iselin in the 1962 political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.

Gregory is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Ann Miltner.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.