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Tuesday, October 31, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Anthony Lee's life was short, meaningful

Seattle Times theater critic

It is no wonder that in the past several days, Seattle's theatrical grapevine has been abuzz with the unexpected news of Anthony Dwain Lee's death.

People who worked with this prolific, 39-year-old actor in many local theaters are calling each other to share their grief in conversations suffused with shock, disbelief, sorrow and anger.

Many of those who knew Lee well professionally, including me, found it almost impossible to imagine that this dedicated, gentlemanly stage and film actor had been shot and killed on Saturday.

The bizarre circumstances of his death, which Seattle actress-director and Lee's longtime friend Michelle Blackmon aptly termed "Kafkaesque," sounded like something out of a shlocky B-action flick - the kind of thing the studious, artistically driven Lee would avoid appearing in.

At a Halloween costume party in Los Angeles, where he was working successfully in films ("Liar Liar") and TV ("N.Y.P.D. Blue," "Brooklyn South"), Lee was gunned down by a policeman who mistook a toy weapon the actor carried for a real pistol.

The tragedy drew national headlines, and spurred renewed criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department. It also brought accusations of police racism, although Lee and the officer who shot him were both black. An investigation of the shooting is under way.

But for the many in Seattle who knew and admired this charismatic man who left his mark on our theater scene, Lee must be remembered not mainly as the victim of a freak shooting, but as a riveting actor and an extraordinary human being. He deserves that.

The first time I really sat up and took notice of Anthony Lee, it was a sweltering night in summer 1992.

The occasion was a Seattle Shakespeare Festival production of "Othello." Sitting in a miserably hot, unventilated theater for three hours was the last way I wanted to spend that scorching evening. But watching the strapping, vigorous Lee grapple with one of Shakespeare's most challenging roles was worth the effort.

Lee was struggling with the part, but in graceful command of his 6-foot, 4-inch frame. He delivered Othello's agonized speeches in a voice of rumbling velvet, and with an electric intensity that sliced the fetid air like lightning.

After that night, there were many more opportunities to see Lee in action: He gave memorable, live-wire performances in some of Seattle's most significant stage shows of the 1990s, working in every major theater in town.

Lee was in the Intiman Theatre debut of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Kentucky Cycle." He had a key role in the celebrated epic, "The Cider House Rules" at Seattle Repertory Theatre. He starred in a dynamic revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Group Theatre.

Blackmon, who acted with Lee a dozen years ago in his first Seattle show, "The Colored Museum" at Empty Space Theatre, recalls "watching Anthony from backstage every night and being amazed at the depth of his work."

Jane Jones, co-directer of " Cider House Rules," speaks of the humanity Lee poured into Mr. Rose, a figure in John Irving's novel-turned-play who sexually abuses his own daughter.

"This was a hard guy for the audience to swallow, but Anthony brought such incredible dignity to him," Jones says.

Jacqueline Moscou, who starred opposite Lee in "A Raisin in the Sun" and directed him in "Spunk" at Seattle Rep, was struck by Lee's personal path.

"He became a devout, practicing Buddhist, which was unusual for a black man," she observes. "He made a conscious choice of putting spirtuality into his life and it helped focus his work."

Others were awed by Lee's intensive pursuit of his craft and avid interest in widening his creative horizons. With help from many friends, he raised the funds to study filmmaking. Last year, he flew to Seattle to play Astrov in a low-budget version of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," staged in Seattle by Russian director Leonid Anisimov.

Characteristically, Lee told me, "The thing about Chekhov's work is that it's really about playing scenes with great integrity. Being black or white or anything else is irrelevant. It's about the truth of the words and the feelings."

For Tim Bond, the artistic director of the now-defunct Group Theatre, seeking truth was a real mission for the man he considered "my best friend."

"Anthony was so intellectually curious," says Bond, now associate artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "When he played Malcolm X in `The Meeting,' he studied Malcolm very intensely on tape, and incorporated all these incredible details into his performance. He read eight books on the guy, he brought in videos and music. That thoroughness was one of the joys of working with him."

Bond also admired the way Lee overcame a tough childhood in Sacramento (including a stint in the notorious street gang, The Crips) to become a disciplined artist and "an incredible role model for a way to live a life, and deal with what he called human revolution. He volunteered his time to work with troubled youth in Seattle and L.A. And he chanted twice a day for world peace. That was who he was."

Lee also was ambitious, confident, and ready to make a name for himself in film. But because his Hollywood career was cut short, he leaves behind few film performances that suggest the acting range and power we witnessed close-up in Seattle.

What will have to suffice is our collective memories of Lee as a frustrated Chicago chauffeur going for his big dream in "A Raisin in the Sun," the anguished Mr. Rose spilling his secrets in "The Cider House Rules," the zesty zoot-suited hustler Sweet Back in "Spunk," and the impassioned, self-destructive Othello.

But it's not in "Othello" we find an epitaph for this artist cut down in his prime. Some famous lines in "Hamlet," a role Lee never played here but could have, serve us better: "Now cracks a noble heart - Good night sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

A memorial service for Lee will be held at the Intiman Theatre Monday at 7:30 p.m. The gathering is open to the theater community and the general public. For more details, call Michelle Blackmon at 206-722-3851.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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