John Raitt Biography

Born John Emmet Raitt, January 20, 1917, in Santa Ana, CA; died of complications from pneumonia, February 20, 2005, in Pacific Palisades, CA. Actor. Broadway star John Raitt was one of the most prolific stage performers of his generation. He was a leading star in the golden era of musical theater, and was perhaps best known for his role as Billy Bigelow in Carousel, which he originated in 1945. The show featured a seven-minute showstopper— written specifically for Raitt—and his booming baritone—which "remains one of the most evocative marriages of music and speech in the Broadway repertoire," asserted Raitt's obituary in the Times of London. Raitt also gained later fame as the father of blues-rock singer Bonnie Raitt.

Raitt was born on January 29, 1917, in Santa Ana, California. His father ran a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) camp in Orange County, and as a high-schooler in Fullerton, California, Raitt proved to be a talented track and field athlete, which won him a scholarship to the University of Southern California. He later transferred to the University of Redlands, where he studied physical education and dabbled in theater.

During his college years Raitt became increasingly involved in theater activities, and took his first professional jobs in the Southern California area just before World War II. He was exempted from military duty during the conflict after filing for status as a conscientious objector, which his Quaker faith permitted him to do. After some roles with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company and in Pasadena-area theaters, he was signed to the MGM movie studio as a contract player. Little Nelly Kelly and Ziegfeld Girl, both released in 1941, are among Raitt's screen credits, but he never rose past a minor role during this period.

Raitt's agent suggested he try his luck in New York City instead, and arranged for him to audition for Oklahoma! to replace Alfred Drake, the actor who originated the role of Curly, the male lead. The Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein tale of romance and the rodeo was a massive Broadway hit when it debuted in 1943, and went on to a record five-year run in its original version. At his audition, Raitt stunned Rodgers, Hammerstein, and the show's other executive personnel by delivering the entirety of Curly's repertoire. Though they decided not to cast him as Oklahoma! 's Broadway lead (he was hired for the touring production), they did tailor the songs in their next immediate project, Carousel, just for him.

Raitt spent a year touring in the road company for Oklahoma! before debuting in Carousel, which opened at Broadway's Majestic Theater in April of 1945. The show, another tale of rural American romance but set in a traveling carnival, gave Raitt the chance to deliver the famous "Soliloquy," in which his character, Billy Bigelow, muses about his future and that of his new family. His "performance," wrote Richard Severo in the New York Times many years later, "was so memorable that he came to epitomize (along with Alfred Drake in Oklahoma! )a new distinctively modern breed of Broadway leading man—rugged cowboys and blue-collar workers."

Pegged as one of the Great White Way's rising stars, Raitt had dismal luck with subsequent roles. A string of other musicals— Magdalena, Three Wishes for Jamie, and Carnival in Flanders —all tanked, but he made a comeback in 1954 with The Pajama Game, a romantic comedy set in a pajama factory. He was cast as its superintendent, Sid Sorokin, while Janis Paige played the union organizer with whom he falls in love. Raitt reprised the role in the 1957 film version of the musical, in which he co-starred alongside Doris Day. Other Broadway credits for Raitt included the leads in Man of La Mancha and Fiddler on the Roof.

When the popularity of the big Broadway musical faded for a time, Raitt went to work in television. However, he continued to perform live in summer-stock theater until well into the 1980s, and often took the jobs for less pay than his star status might have commanded, simply because he said he loved to perform. Once, a 1979 Man of La Mancha production in Massachusetts was canceled due to a hurricane threat, but Raitt still delivered its signature song, "The Impossible Dream," after clambering aboard the tour buses full of audience members that were being turned back, "so they wouldn't go back empty-handed," his New York Times obituary by Severo quoted him as saying.

Raitt's daughter, Bonnie, seemed to inherit his legendary drive. After building a career throughout the 1970s and '80s, she won three Grammy Awards for her 1989 LP Nick of Time, a mix of hard rock and blues. She sometimes brought her father out on stage during concerts to sing a duet with her. Raitt was divorced twice, and in the early 1980s married his former college-era girlfriend, Rosemary Kraemer. He died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, at the age of 88, on February 20, 2005. He is survived by his wife, Rosemary; his daughter, Bonnie; his sons Steven and David, also from his first marriage; two stepdaughters, and six grandchildren. "He never sold out for the quick buck," his daughter once said in an interview, according to a Chicago Tribune report. "If he did Vegas, he would have been a bigger star, but he didn't want to sing for drunks and heck-lers." Sources: Chicago Tribune, February 21, 2005, sec. 1, p. 11; Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2005, p. B9; New York Times, February 21, 2005, p. A19; Times (London), April 5, 2005, p. 54; Washington Post, February 21, 2005, p. B6.

Carol Brennan

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