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James “Jim” Baker

Jim Baker was a big bear of a man who loved to tell stories, and was a master at it. He was focused and fearless on stage. In nearly a half century of acting, from Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to the ghost of Christmas past in A Christmas Carol, he never suffered from stage fright. “Jim? No,” said his friend and colleague, actor James Pickering, who appeared alongside Baker in many Milwaukee Repertory Theater productions. “He taught me just from watching him work, his self-esteem as an artist—learning to have confidence. For him, it came naturally.”

Baker, who performed in more than 40 productions with the Milwaukee Rep. and across the country in resident acting companies, died Feb. 4 after collapsing at a Montana hotel, where he and his wife were staying. The couple was on their way to a Veterans Affairs hospital for a checkup, said his wife, Mary Baker. He was 71.

Born and raised in tiny Conrad, Baker was the only child of Lloyd and Ferne Baker. They ran a real estate and insurance business and Lloyd was a volunteer fireman. Their son was a handful and they sent Jim off to a military academy in Minnesota, from which he was expelled after three years, returning to school in Conrad for his senior year of high school. Somewhere along the way, a great English teacher introduced him to Shakespeare, and he discovered theater.

While attending the University of Montana in Missoula, he spent his summers performing at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland.

He served for two years in the Army during the Vietnam War. “He had a tough time. He saw a lot and it affected him in a deep way,” said Joseph Hanreddy, the former Rep artistic director who would bring Baker back to the Rep in 1995, more than 20 years after an earlier stint.

After the Army, Baker “plunged himself into the theater world,” Hanreddy said. In a resident company, Baker sort of had a family around him. It helped him find his way back. “He was really one of the great actors of American ensemble theaters,” said Hanreddy, a writer and director who lives in Door County.

Baker performed with the Rep from 1971 to 1974. Over the years, he was a member of resident acting companies at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT), where Hanreddy noticed him, the Actors Theater of Louisville, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Denver Center Theater Company.

While with the Denver Center Theater Company, actor Sam Gregory described Baker as fabulously talented and hilarious. “I remember him making me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe in such shows as Tartuffe and School For Wives...and that’s while I was ON stage,” Gregory wrote on his Facebook page. “He was the real deal. A genuine force of nature.”

Baker was part of a Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of Desire Under the Elms that toured to Japan. “He was a bear of a man and a ferocious actor,” said longtime Denver stage manager Christopher Ewing. “Powerful. Vibrant. Brash.”

He also performed as a guest artist with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Rep., the MacCarter Theater of Princeton and Los Angeles Actors Theater.

One of his most memorable roles was one of his first with the Rep., as Goldberg in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. “He was a mobster, an enforcer. He was absolutely menacing in the play. Absolutely masterful. Baker delivered another masterful performance as Candy in the Rep’s Of Mice and Men,” Pickering said.

After performing with other companies, Baker returned to the Rep. in 1995, playing Old Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World. Hanreddy remembered Baker’s performance as Big Daddy in the Rep.’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the 1999-2000 season. He played the Southern patriarch whose family is “disintegrating around him”, and can’t find words to communicate his love of family. “So it all came from his heart and his soul,” Hanreddy said.

Helping him to reach masterful was his wife Mary. “He worked with his wife a whole lot. He would describe the character to her and how far he felt he was into it,” Pickering said.

Baker met Mary Eichholz during a blizzard on New Year’s Day 1974. She and her friends were at a bar holding a “swearing-off-men party”, she said. They chatted, and she eventually had to go. I drove away and looked in the rear view mirror, and there was Jimmy, chasing the car saying, “How do I spell your last name?” They were married on Aug. 29, 1974.

In 1979, Baker headed to Los Angeles, where, in addition to appearing in a number of plays, films and other television shows, he was also a regular (Farley Waters) on the CBS sitcom, Flo.

Baker worked at the Rep. until 2006, when he injured his back while rehearsing for King Lear. He was lifting Cordelia. He never did get to play the part of Lear. His final show with the Rep. was Tartuffe during the 2006-2007 season. He played a bailiff named M. Loyal.

After that, he and Mary retired to Baker’s hometown. She asked him if he missed acting. It was the process that he missed, he told her. “It was putting a play together, working with a group of actors that he loved and trusted. It was just the discovery and the journey of figuring out another person,” she said, “and to do it honestly and believably.”

Looking back at their nearly 40 years together, and the characters they explored, Mary said, “I feel like I lived with 200 different men. And it was really quite a journey.”

Baker is survived by his wife Mary.

A memorial will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. on March 16 at the Pondera Golf Course in Conrad. Memorials are suggested to the Conrad Volunteer Fire Department, 15 - 5th Ave. S.W., Conrad.