John Fiedler Is Dead at 80

Famous for the white role in “Raisin,” Brooklyn actor was “Bob Newhart” patient

In Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” there is only one white person, and his soul is, well, maybe not black, but a very dingy gray. His name is Karl Lindner, and he’s the meek, mild, little man from the neighborhood “improvement association” who comes around with a “generous offer”—several thousands of dollars—to keep the Younger family from moving into the neighborhood in question. In other words, to buy them off.

This character—the coyote under the white skin—was played to perfection in the 1959 Broadway premiere of Hansberry’s breakthrough powerhouse by a short, balding, somewhat high-voiced actor named John Fiedler, who thereafter was called upon to perform the same role in the 1961 motion picture, a 1986 Off-Broadway revival at Union Square, a 1986 Kennedy Center production, a 1987 tour of the play and a 1989 American Playhouse production on PBS.

Audiences with longer memories may see him in their mind’s eye all the way back as Juror No. 2, the indecisive, malleable bank clerk, in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 television premiere of Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men.” Among scores of other roles on stage and large screen and small, Fiedler was the much put-upon Vinnie to Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon’s 1968 “Odd Couple” and, for the five years 1973-78, Dr. Hartley’s—i.e., Bob Newhart’s—milquetoasty patient, Mr. Peterson.

Those with shorter memories, and shorter years, will know fine actor Fiedler as the voice of Piglet, Winnie-the-Pooh’s dusty, squeaky little friend in the Disney cartoon series.

John Fiedler was born February 3, 1925, in Platteville, Wisconsin. He was a well-established actor before he hit his 30s, and never stopped working. Once or twice I grabbed him in interview—he was the opposite in every measurable way of the obsequious bigot of the Hansberry drama—a part I saw him do at least twice on stage and once on screen at wide intervals over the years.

Tony Randall loved him and used him once or twice in productions of the American Actors’ Theater. Tony Walton did the same as recently as 1996, when Fiedler portrayed the Reverend Canon Chasuble, doctor of divinity, blithering suitor of Miss Prism, the forgetful governess, in Walton’s staging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the little Irish Repertory on West 22nd Street.

John Fiedler died on June 25 at 80. I just thought Lorraine ought to know that he is on the way. To her neighborhood.