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BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Victor Arnold, a longtime Village resident and actor who was in the original production of “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” died April 13 in a hospice in Buffalo at the age of 79.
Although he quit smoking in 1985, he was afflicted with emphysema, said his wife, Jessie Phillips Ratner.
“He was a wonderful actor and a terrific storyteller,” said David Rothenberg, who produced the 1967 Off Broadway prison play and founded The Fortune Society, which advocates for prison reform and helps ex-offenders re-enter society.
Victor Arnold’s acting career spanned nearly 50 years on stage, television and in film, including the original “Shaft,” directed by Gordon Parks, “And Justice for All,” directed by Norman Jewison and “Trees Lounge,” directed by Steve Buscemi.
On Broadway his credits include “Fun City” with Joan Rivers and the revival “Front Page” with Robert Ryan and Helen Hayes.
He was frequently on television, with featured appearances in “Law and Order,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Cagney & Lacey,” “Kojak” and other programs. He acted in many regional theater productions, from Boston to Los Angeles, over the years.
Born Arnold Ratner in Herkimer, N.Y., he grew up in the Bronx where his parents moved when his was 3 years old.
He played baseball at Taft High School in the Bronx and had a tryout at third base for the Phillies in the Polo Grounds when he hit an inside-the-park homerun, his wife said.
“Vic was a tremendous storyteller, a true raconteur,” she said. “He would mesmerize any gathering with stories about baseball, the Navy and show business.”
After high school he joined the Navy in 1951 and became a medical corpsman serving aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Baltimore.
“He told about being stationed near a Marine base in North Carolina when General ‘Chesty’ Puller [the most decorated Marine in the corps’ history] ordered him to ‘square away’ because he was wearing his hat at a nonregulation angle,” Ratner recalled.
After discharge from the Navy in 1955 he went to New York University under the G.I. Bill, studying to become a gym teacher.
“He was walking past the 13th Street Repertory Theatre one day when a friend stopped him and asked him if he wanted to be in a play. I think it was ‘Tiger at the Gates,’ ” his wife said.
It was the beginning of a distinguished career.
Victor Arnold got his stage name after a meeting in1962 with Maynard Morris, an influential theater agent at MCA Artists.
“ ‘Ratner’ was too ethnic so they made his first name his last and Vic came up with ‘Victor’ for his first name,” Ratner said.
A resident of Buffalo, Jessie met her husband through mutual friends when he was in a play at the Buffalo Studio Arena.
“He told me he lived in Greenwich Village and asked me to come with him. ‘There are trees on the street and the Hudson River is a block away,’ he said. So I gave my boss two weeks notice and when Vic’s show closed I said goodbye to Buffalo,” she said.
When Vic’s emphysema condition got worse, he could not manage stairs, so the couple moved to Buffalo last year, where he entered a hospice, his wife said.
“We lived back and forth for a time in Los Angeles, like a lot of actors, but the Village was really our home,” she said.
He kept in touch with The Fortune Society since its founding in 1967 and regularly attended its events until recently, Rothenberg said.
A sister died young and his parents predeceased him.