George Gaynes died at the home of his daughter, Iya Gaynes Falcone Brown, in North Bend, Washington, on February 15. He was 98. Gaynes was a resident of Santa Barbara for many years.
Gaynes was born George Jongejans in Helsinki on May 16, 1917. His father, Gerrit Jongejans, was a Dutch citizen, while his mother, Iya Grigorievna Gay, was Russian. The marriage took place under the shadow of the recent Bolshevik uprising. Gaynes’s mother was the daughter of an aristocratic theater artist and producer working in St. Petersburg. When Gaynes was a child, his mother supplemented the rich culture of the Paris home she shared with her second husband, the Baronet Sir Robert Abdy, by sending her son to a British boarding school. Admitted to Eton in 1929, Gaynes instead matriculated at a private college in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he lived for seven years with a Swiss family. When Gaynes graduated, he moved to Milan, Italy, to begin a career as an opera singer.
Inspired by the example of the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, and advised no doubt by his mother and her coterie of artistic friends, Gaynes planned to train his bass-baritone voice and enter on a career as an opera singer. For three years, this strategy worked well, and Gaynes made his operatic debut early in 1940. By May of that year, however, his Dutch passport had become a liability in Milan, and Gaynes left Italy on June 9, the day before that country declared war on France and the United Kingdom.
The next two years found Gaynes and his mother living on the edge of World War II, and doing so in style, with residences in Biarritz and then Monaco. When the last unoccupied parts of France fell to the Nazis in 1942, mother and son made their separate ways to London, where he joined the Royal Dutch Navy and was assigned to the British Navy. It was in this capacity that Gaynes participated in the invasions of Sicily and southern France. Although she did not arrive in London until after Gaynes had shipped out, his mother, too, volunteered for service as a translator and landed at Normandy with an American medical unit on D-Day.
Following the war, Gaynes moved to Paris and resumed his career in opera, singing major roles in opera houses in Alsace and in Strasbourg. In 1949, Gaynes was offered a contract by Laszlo Halasz, founding director of the New York City Opera, and in the fall of that year he made his United States debut. Virgil Thomson called him “the best Leporello of the decade” when he appeared in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
By the following year, Gaynes had attracted the attention of Broadway and began performing roles in musical theater even as he continued his career with New York City Opera. His breakthrough role came in 1953, when he took the male lead in Wonderful Town opposite first Rosalind Russell, and then Carol Channing. It was the director of Wonderful Town, George Abbott, who advised Gaynes, at the time still performing as George Jongejans, that his Broadway career would benefit from a name change. From then on, he was known as George Gaynes.
Wonderful Town turned out to be a fateful show in another way as well, because through it Gaynes met the actress Allyn Ann McLerie, who became his wife and the mother of his two children, Iya and Matthew. Allyn Ann McLerie is a star in her own right and has played hundreds of roles on television, in film, and on the Broadway stage. She is probably best known as Molly Dodd’s mother from the television series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.
From 1967-1989, Gaynes lived in Hollywood, where he became one of the industry’s most prolific performers. While most people would be likely to recognize Gaynes as either Punky Brewster’s crotchety stepfather Henry Warnimont or Police Academy’s comic Commandant Eric Lassard, the truth is that he has as many different fans as he played different roles, which is to say they are legion. His character was infatuated with drag Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and he clocked countless hours as a regular on General Hospital, but he was also a brilliant Serybryakov in the film Vanya on 42nd Street, an excellent example of his extraordinary range and the depth of his talent.
In Santa Barbara, Gaynes was an active and generous member of the community for 25 years. He participated in the Unity Shoppe Telethon on an annual basis and contributed to political causes and candidates, mostly on the Democratic side — his daughter, Iya, served two terms on the Santa Barbara City Council. His legacy endures, as he is survived by his wife of 62 years, Allyn Ann, his daughter, Iya, his grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His son, Matthew, died in a car crash in India in 1989.
A public memorial service is being held on Thursday, April 28, at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, 4:30-6:30 p.m.