When news broke over a week ago that Danny Goldring had died at 76, there was (as is often the case these days) an immediate outpouring of tributes on social media. I learned the news from Chicago actor Gary Houston; I sometimes met Goldring and his wife, actor Diane Dorsey, over the years at parties hosted by Houston and his wife, artist Hedda Lubin.
I never knew Goldring beyond nodding acquaintance, but it’s nearly impossible not to recognize his face. During his long career, he appeared in several movies, including shot-in-Chicago features such as The Fugitive, The Dark Knight, and Chain Reaction,and television series such as Six Feet Under and three Star Trek franchises (Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise). He had a memorable turn in the two-season Starz series Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer as a terminally ill Chicago mayor desperately hanging onto power. Goldring played Ryan Kavanaugh, a retired cop-turned-barkeep and an old friend and sounding board to Grammer’s Tom Kane. In a 2012 Tribune profile of Goldring by Rick Kogan, the actor said, “The character is almost a perfect fit. I know this guy.”
Making us feel like we knew the guys he played was one of the great gifts Goldring brought to roles large and small. In addition to his handsome craggy face and (for most of his life) red hair, he had a memorably gruff voice that could seem at odds with what Dorsey describes as a man with boundless curiosity about—and kindness toward—other living creatures.
“He had a heart bigger than I realized,” she says. “He looked out for the Streetwise guys. He wanted to help the lost dogs find where their homes were. He’d walk out of our house with a cigarette behind his ear and he’d pull out another pack of cigarettes and put one in his mouth, light it, take a puff, go down the stairs, walk to the bus to start auditioning, to start looking for work. That was his ritual for leaving home. And on that bus ride downtown? He talked to the bus drivers, he looked at the people on the buses. He made friends where you just don’t think about making friends.”
Dorsey and Goldring met while working together on a commercial shoot. Goldring had just returned to Chicago after several years in New York, where he appeared in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow until his character was killed off.
Dorsey recalls the moment she met Goldring after the day’s shooting was done. “There were like maybe 20 of us at a bar on Halsted Street, and there was this guy I had never seen. I was ready to fall in love. I had already put a list [of what I wanted in a relationship] on the refrigerator according to Shakti Gawain’s creative visualization. I put five things on it, and a month later this gentleman happens to appear that I don’t know who he is.”
But she soon discovered Goldring checked all the boxes on her refrigerator wish list: He was over six feet tall; ruggedly handsome; had a great sense of humor (“I didn’t know it was going to be puns for 30 years, though,” Dorsey says with a laugh); respected the arts; and was financially responsible. Dorsey says she went over to introduce herself to Goldring, and when they shook hands, “I felt a zap go right through my arm.”
For a brief time, the two lived in LA, but they bought a house in Lakeview, and Chicago was home for most of their marriage. That house is where Goldring died on Friday, December 2. Dorsey says that, though he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015, kidney failure is what caused his death. With a catch in her throat, Dorsey says, “This is his house that he bought with an actor’s money. This is the cute little house that we’ve lived in for 30 years, 32 years. I wanted him to be in his home when he passed.”
Working steadily as a character actor (a problematic phrase, insofar as all actors are playing characters) did provide a decent living for Goldring, if not star status. Dorsey says, “He viewed himself as wanting to try everything. And it wasn’t about lead roles, it was about unique roles, well-written scripts. He really didn’t like a couple of things he did because he felt it was poorly written, poorly produced, or poorly directed, mishandled by somebody. But that was very seldom. He just respected the work, he respected the people he worked with.”
That respect was very much returned. Edward Blatchford, who directed Goldring in American Blues Theater՚s 2015 revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker (one of the last times Goldring appeared onstage), says, “To direct him was fabulous. Because he was the pro, he was totally responsible and showed up prepared without any of the drama. It wasn’t about the gossip. It wasn’t about all the drama surrounding relationships that were happening offstage. He was all about the work, and it shows in his work.”
Goldring was born in Woodstock, Illinois, the son of a U.S. Navy officer, and his family lived in many places while he was growing up, including (as Kogan noted) Japan, Hawaii, and Maryland. He attended Trinity University in San Antonio for a year, did a stint in the U.S. Army in the Signal Corps branch in Vietnam, and then returned to Maryland to work construction. He made his stage debut there in a production of The Thurber Carnival, then took a job touring with the Cole Marionettes, a Chicago-based outfit that eventually brought him back to Chicago, where he studied at what was then the Goodman School of Drama (now the Theatre School at DePaul).
He performed in several small theaters around the city and suburbs in the 1970s and got his local break with the long-running comedy Lunching by Alan Gross at the Drury Lane Theater in Water Tower Place (now the Broadway Playhouse). As he told the late Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen in 1978, “If I hadn’t gotten the part, I was going to quit forever, maybe go back to construction work or become a carpet salesman, I don’t know.”
Playwright Brett Neveu got to know Goldring when the actor played the title role in Neveu’s late-night show The Earl at A Red Orchid Theatre in 2006, which ran for six months. In Neveu’s play, an aging Hollywood action star, Lawrence Stevens (aka The Earl) joins a trio of brothers in their vicious backyard beatdown games. It was scheduled for the Saturday Reading Series at Chicago Dramatists, and the late Dramatists artistic director Russ Tutterow suggested that Goldring would be perfect for the part of the Earl.
Danny Goldring (third from left) and the cast of The Earl at A Red Orchid Theatre in 2006. Courtesy A Red Orchid Theatre
In an email, Neveu tells me, “Danny played the role with the perfect amount of silver-screen bravado, unequaled cowboy strength, and viciously focused calm that would whip up jam-packed audiences into a frenzy . . . I’d watch Danny enter the stage with a careful whisper and leave with a blood-soaked grin, turning his performance into one now permanently logged into the annals of Chicago theater lore. Danny was hilarious, amazing, kind, smart, cool, and full of the kind of stories you want to listen to all night long. Being around Danny was like being bathed in the light of a God, and that’s not exactly hyperbole. He had that kind of power. His hair, his eyes, and that goddamn voice.”
Kirsten Fitzgerald, artistic director of A Red Orchid, also wrote in an email, “Whenever Danny called and left a message, or purchased tickets at A Red Orchid, he did so using the name Lawrence Stevens (or The Earl). It made my day to pick up the phone to his rich, deeply kind, and somehow mischievous voice, or to run into his big hug, sly grin, and razor-sharp sense of humor in our agent’s office or on the softball field with Diane and Brett.” She adds, “I think of Danny this way: as an icon of sorts, at times endearingly corny, holding all he loved sacred, and kicking serious ass.”
Dorsey also saw the introspective side of her husband. “Danny wouldn’t walk through the door and say, ‘Let me tell you what I did today.’ That’s something I would do,” she says with a laugh. “Danny would come in and walk back and sit on the deck and have a cigarette and look at the bird feeders. And I would say, ‘Well, what happened today?’ He’d say, ‘Well, the guy driving the bus wished everybody a merry Christmas. And it just cheered everybody up.’ He was that way. He had his stories inside, but he didn’t have a need to tell them except as an artist. And he fulfilled that beautifully.”
She adds, “Danny, he always wanted to know where the hole in the fence was. He told me that as a kid growing up, he was almost like an only child because his siblings were much older and he grew up in the Navy. So they moved around a lot and he would sneak out of the house, and he would sneak into [base] quarters where there were pool tables. But it was dark at night, and he would click the pool balls against each other and listen to the sounds. He wanted to be able to get in and out of places easily. He wanted to know where the hole in the fence was, symbolically.”
Dorsey says that there will be a public gathering to honor Goldring sometime later in 2023. “We wouldn’t do anything formal because he wasn’t that kind of guy. In the spring, we’re going to have a get-together in a public place so that as many people that want to come can come, order a drink, order food, tell their stories on a mike if they want to share how they knew Danny.”
Based on the longevity of his career and the huge number of tributes posted on social media, it may need to be a big bar. Meantime, Dorsey suggests showing kindness to random strangers, making a donation to PAWS Chicago, or perhaps making and sharing the starter for Amish friendship bread (something he loved and gifted to friends over the years, as Hedda Lubin told me last week) would be a good way to remember a one-of-a-kind Chicago actor.