We were devastated to learn of the sudden death of Ian Grealy, last seen on our stage as the father in Proof in 2014. In true theatrical style, there was standing room only at his packed funeral, as the mourners spilled out of the chapel, into its foyer and further into the main foyer.
President of Williamstown Little Theatre, Peter Newling, was one of the speakers at Ian Grealy’s funeral. The following is taken from that eulogy, with permission.
I’ve been asked to talk about Ian the actor.
Through the week we received a lovely segue between Ian’s life as a teacher and his life in the theatre community. A long time friend, Mark, wrote of a rich, formative time in his childhood in Bathurst when Ian was a local maths teacher and a member of the Bathurst Players. Through the theatre group, Ian became firm, lifelong friends with Mark’s mother, and ‘Sir Grealy’ as they affectionately called him, spent a great deal of time with the family at weekends and celebrations. Ian was a wonderful role model for a teenager growing up in a one parent household, and Mark expressed gratitude to Ian for being part of the family for so many years, adding, ‘You will be with us forever’.
I buzzed an email out to a few chosen people who had directed Ian or worked with him on stage, asking for their observations or insights into Ian the actor. The response was quite overwhelming. But three main themes really came to the fore...
Firstly, he was just a damn fine actor. A multiple award winning actor, Ian never shied away from some of the most difficult roles – both in terms of size, or complexity. He thrived in roles with enormous monologues – such as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, or the Inspector in Disposing of the Body. And complex, emotional and multi dimensional characters like Alan Turing in Breaking the Code, or Ken Harrison in Whose Life Is It Anyway, or the slowly deteriorating genius Robert in Proof. He was equally comfortable in comedic and dramatic roles.
One word that keeps coming up in people’s description of Ian the actor is that he was a perfectionist. He had a tendency to get a bit mad with himself if he wasn’t getting something exactly right – and there are numerous accounts of Ian staying behind after rehearsals to go over scenes again and again.
I recall during a rehearsal for Rough Crossing (for which his portrayal of the hapless ship steward Dvornichek won him the Win Stewart Award at Williamstown), Ian was struggling to balance the many props he was expected to wrangle. During one of the rehearsals, when the props were not being his friend, he exited to behind the set, and next thing we all hear this rather loud and quite effeminate ‘fuck’. Those of us on this side of the set smiled a bit at what was probably the shortest and least masculine tanty we’d ever heard, and carried on. At the end of the rehearsal, when I was about to start giving notes, he stopped me and said ‘Can I say a few words before you start? I would just like to apologise to everyone for my appalling behaviour.’ It was met with a collective awwwwww.
And that leads us to the second theme that emerged – Ian was an absolute gentleman. An incredibly giving actor, his care for his cast mates on stage was always a direct reflection of his genuine care for people in real life.
Keith Hutton expressed this beautifully. He wrote to me:
"I was touched with his care and compassion when we were doing ‘Morning Departure’ together at WLT in 2013. Well into the rehearsal process, my mother became critically ill. I decided to travel to the UK to spend a few days with her. I arrived back in Melbourne with only two weeks before opening night and I was well behind with my lines. My mother died three days after my return. Ian was very supportive and caring towards me and remained so throughout the season, during which I was far from my best.
"At the end of the final performance, Ian was waiting in the wings as I came off and gave me a huge hug and said how proud of me he was given the emotional upset I was encountering. The point I make here is, he didn't have to say or do anything, but it revealed the compassionate and caring man he was and I appreciated the gesture so much. We've lost a lovely man and a fine actor."
But perhaps the thing people mentioned most often to me in their communications was his delightful, understated and slightly wicked sense of humour. Shirley Sydenham tells a story of when they were both performing at the Moomba Festival – so that dates them both for a start! Shirley won an award for a part she played. Ian came up to her afterward and said, “I’m glad you won, but I was hoping I would be the Queen of Moomba.” Quiet, unassuming, self deprecating, hilarious.
Perhaps Janine Evans put it best when she wrote, "Ian was my favourite person to say naughty things to. He would look like a shocked choirboy for a second and then with a loud HA! he'd bray with laughter."
Warm, sensitive and endlessly talented, Ian bought so much more to a production than the beautiful work he did on stage. All of us involved in theatre in Melbourne will miss having this remarkable gentleman around.
Cue curtain. Slow fade to black. Music in. Lights up for curtain call. Bravo Mr Grealy. Good show.
And to bastardise a line from a card from Monica Greenwood, Mandy Murray and Katie Macfie:
Hey Greals – chookas for the next act.