POET CARL SANDBURG ONCE called Burl Ives “the mightiest ballad singer of this or any other century.” Ives was certainly among the most-traveled, whether he was hoboing across the United States in the ’30s or giving concerts around the world in the ’50s.
Onscreen, the 6’2″, 270-lb. Ives carved an imposing presence, portraying cranky cattle barons (1958’s The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and crafty patriarchs—most memorably, Big Daddy in the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But the actor himself, it seems, was a gentle giant. “He possessed this wonderful, teddy-bear warmth,” his Cat costar Elizabeth Taylor recalled last week after Ives, 85, died of mouth cancer on April 14 at his home in Anacortes, Wash. “I loved him, and I will miss him.”
So will generations of kids who grew up singing Ives’s signature songs “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Blue Tail Fly.” As a teenager though, Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives cared more about football than folk songs. The youngest of six children of tenant farmers in Jasper County, Ill., Ives played fullback in high school and planned to become a coach. But in 1929, his senior year at Eastern Illinois State Teachers College, the phys-ed major was suddenly overcome with wanderlust. He dropped out, grabbed his guitar and hit the road. He roamed “the country from one end to the other with my guitar over my shoulder,” Ives later wrote in his book Tales of America.
He wound up in Greenwich Village in 1937, playing “Wayfarin’ Stranger” and “Foggy, Foggy Dew.” Two years later, he joined pal Eddie Albert, whom he had met when both landed roles in the 1938 Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse, in L.A., where they shared digs in Beachwood Canyon. “I came home one night,” recalls Albert, “and I could hear people singing. I went in and this fellow stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hello. I’m Woody Guthrie.’ ”
In 1945, Ives married Helen Peck Ehrlich, who had directed him on a radio show. They split up in the late ’60s, with Helen taking custody of their adopted son Alexander. In 1955, Ives became Big Daddy when director Elia Kazan, then casting the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, saw him punching out a nightclub heckler. In all, Ives appeared in at least a dozen plays and 26 movies. On TV he narrated the Christmas cartoon perennial Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, played a lawyer on NBC’s The Bold Ones (1969-72) and a southern senator in 1977’s, Roots.
In 1990, he and his second wife, Dorothy, whom he married in 1970, moved to Anacortes. Ives became involved in the local community, doing fund-raisers for a pediatric center and a new cultural center. But his health soon began to deteriorate. A onetime pipe and cigar smoker, he developed mouth cancer. After several operations, Ives finally called a halt to any more surgery. Dorothy and his three stepchildren were at his bedside when he died. “His soul was as deep as his voice,” says producer Lester Persky. “He could thunder, but never in anger, and he had an all-encompassing calm about him. He was just a great Big Daddy.”
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles