Robert Nichols

Robert Nichols, a singer, dancer and actor, enjoyed a career on stage, television and movies for nearly 70 years in London, New York and Los Angeles as well as Occidental, his home since 1991.

Nichols, an Oakland native who entertained troops during World War II and later performed on Broadway and in Hollywood films, died of heart failure at home on Thursday. He was 88.

Nichols' film credits included "The Thing," the original 1951 version that became a cult classic, "Giant" with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, and "The Red Badge of Courage" with Audie Murphy.

On television, he appeared in "Maverick," "Gunsmoke," "The Addams Family," "The Real McCoys" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Nichols, who started out as a song and dance man, favored the stage most of all, said his wife, Jennifer Nichols of Occidental.

"Live theater was absolutely the thing he loved," she said.

Nichols' distinction, in an industry known for many starving artists, was to have made a living as a "working actor," his wife said. "To survive in this business is a big deal."

His favorite Broadway role was in "Take Me Along," a musical based on the Eugene O'Neill play "Ah, Wilderness" in 1959.

Another career highlight was performing the role of Cap'n Andy in a 1988 recording of "Showboat," recognized as the best musical comedy recording of the decade.

To see Nichols in action, check the YouTube clip "Robert Nichols goes dancing," showing him in the 1952 movie "Sally and Saint Anne."

Nichols began performing at his Oakland high school, and continued during his wartime duty with the Army's Special Services, playing at stateside bases with soldiers from the burlesque trade and managing a band of black jazz musicians in Japan.

After the war, Nichols won a scholarship to the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art in London, followed by song and dance and stage performances in the British capital. His first film role was in the 1949 feature "I Was a Male War Bride" shot in Germany with Cary Grant.

Deported by the British for lack of a work permit, Nichols went to Los Angeles, where he met Jennifer in 1950 at a beach party near Malibu celebrating her 19th birthday. The couple got engaged after two dates and married months later.

After a decade of film and television work, Nichols returned to London, appearing in musicals, plays and films shot in England and on the European continent.

Nichols returned to Los Angeles in 1965, then moved to New York, where he worked steadily on stage, including "Man and Superman" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

In 1991, the couple bought rural property in Occidental, and Nichols continued working for another decade. His last stage production was in "Ragtime," which played in Los Angeles, Chicago and Vancouver.

Jennifer Nichols, who worked as a film wardrobe supervisor, said her husband was an ethical, intelligent and good-humored man who cared about others. "Most of all, he made me laugh at myself - essential in a long marriage," she said.

Survivors, in addition to his wife, are his daughter, Christie Nichols of Santa Cruz; son, David Nichols of Fort Myers, Fla; sister, Nancy Schweitz of Santa Rosa and two grandchildren.

No services will be held because Nichols' friends are either deceased or live far away and "an actor needs a full house," his wife said.

Friends may plant a rose bush in his memory, she said.

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