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Old 03-04-2014, 12:19 AM   #1
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Unhappy Jim Baker (Farley Waters) 1941-2014


Jim Baker lived a quiet and unassuming life in Montana.

His home in Conrad is where he and his wife, Mary, retreated to re-energize and take a break from the limelight.

Yet among the nationwide family of stage actors, Baker was recognized as one of the lions of American theater. One month ago, the veteran actor from Conrad exited the stage for the last time. Jim Baker died Feb. 4 after collapsing at a Montana hotel where he and Mary were staying. He was 71.

“He was really one of the great actors of American ensemble theaters,” nationally acclaimed stage director Joseph Hanreddy said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It all came from his heart and soul.”

“He was the real deal,” Sam Gregory, who shared the stage with Baker during numerous performances of the Denver Center Theater Company, told Denver Centerstage. “A genuine force of nature.”

Baker’s stage career spanned five decades. He performed at venues from Los Angeles to Louisville, tackling roles that ranged from Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” to Candy in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

He was born in Great Falls in 1942, the only child of Lloyd and Ferne Baker, who ran a real estate and insurance business in Conrad. According to Mary Baker, as a child Baker “was very efficient at getting into trouble.”

“His mom and dad didn’t know which way to turn,” she told the Tribune.

Eventually the Bakers turned to the Shattuck Military Academy to try to instill some discipline in their son. Baker’s stint there lasted three years before the administrators at Shattuck had their fill of the rebellious youth from Montana. Baker was expelled from the Minnesota school in 1959. He returned to Conrad and graduated from high school there the following year.

“He was always very proud of the fact that he and Marlon Brando got expelled from the same military academy,” Mary Baker said.

Though his primary education had been something less than stellar, somewhere along the way one of his English teachers introduced Baker to the plays of Shakespeare. From the mischievous Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to the evil Iago in “Othello,” the characters and language of Shakespeare inspired Baker to pursue a stage career.

Baker’s first foray into acting came as a student at the University of Montana. He spent his summers performing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and at the Big Fork Playhouse.

After a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Baker plunged himself into acting. By 1971, he had earned a spot with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Wisconsin.

It was there, at a Milwaukee Jazz club, that Baker first met his wife.

A young woman from Milwaukee named Mary Eichholz was commiserating with her sister and a friend about how worthless men were. The three women met at the club on the first day of 1974 for a “swearing off men” party; the day after a disappointing New Year’s Eve dating experience.

Baker was there, too, but a long way from swearing off women. He sent the three women a round of drinks courtesy of “Jim Baker — leading actor of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.”

“I had season tickets to the Milwaukee Rep and had seen him on stage a number of times,” Mary recalled. “He always did character roles so I thought he was in his 60s.”

Baker chatted socially with Mary and her friends for a couple of hours, but a blizzard was brewing outside and the three women had to leave.

“I got in the car and I was driving away,” Mary said of the night she met Jim. “I looked in the rearview mirror and he was chasing the car shouting, ‘How do I spell your last name?’ He called me two days later and eight months after that we eloped.”

Almost by definition, the life of a stage actor means traveling. Mary Baker said that during their 40 years of life together, she and Jim moved 86 times. The typical acting season runs from mid-August until late May, and it is not uncommon for actors to perform eight shows a week.

The Bakers loved the acting life but always looked forward to returning to Conrad every summer.

“We loved coming home to Conrad,” Mary Baker said. “Jim could just be who he was and do what he did and everybody respected his privacy. It was a time to refuel after the rigors of the work. It gave Jim a chance to go fishing and play a little golf.”

In 1979, the Bakers moved to Los Angeles to test their fortunes in television. Jim Baker landed a regular spot on the sitcom “Flo” in which he played a greedy and bombastic banker named Farley Waters. He also made several guest appearances on “The Dukes of Hazard,” “Silver Spoons” and “Simon and Simon.”

But Baker soon found that he didn’t like “the business of the business.”

“You have to depend on other people to find you work,” Mary Baker said of life in Hollywood. “He had always managed his own career, and to have to sit and wait for someone to find you work was tough on him.”

In 1986, the artistic director of the Denver Center Theater Company asked Baker to come to Colorado for two performances. The Bakers ended up staying with the company for the next eight years; reunited with a family of actors whom he loved and trusted.

Baker gained a reputation for versatility and dedication. He was able to capture the essence of roles like Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol”

According to Mary Baker, her husband’s favorite roles where dramatic parts from the plays of Arthur Miller: “Death of a Salesman,” “The Price” and “All My Sons.”

In 1995, Baker returned to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater where his career began 24 years before. He continued to work at the Rep until 2006, when he hurt his back rehearsing for the lead role in “King Lear.” In 2007, Jim and Mary Baker retired to their home in Conrad.

Looking back on their 40 years of life together, Mary Baker said, “I feel like I lived with 200 different men. And it was really quite a journey.”

“There was something wonderful and comforting about Jim, on stage or on the street,” longtime friend and fellow actor Lee Ernst wrote in a eulogy. “When you were with Jim you felt at home, safe, appreciated, cheered, loved and entertained.

“He was a force of nature that blew in from Montana and raised us aloft with his monumental spirit, accompanying us on our journey through the world, filling our hearts and minds with joy — and then departed all too soon.”

A memorial for Baker will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. March 16 at the Pondera Golf Course in Conrad.
As long as people talk about you, you're not really dead. As long as they speak your name, you continue. A legend doesn't die just because the man does.
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