GREENWICH VILLAGE, N.Y.—Whether he played a cop, thug, mafia kingpin, a traveling corset salesman or a loveable Italian grandfather, rest assured. Val Avery, born Sebouh Der Abrahamian, always put his best acting foot forward.
Throughout a film career that spanned 50 years, Avery was not only your personified journeyman’s player but treated every role with Oscar-like tendencies.
For that reason alone, he landed some of the best parts by the best people in the business—guys like John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Falk with whom he socialized at the Lion’s Head, a popular Greenwich Village tavern close to his home.
Avery died on Dec. 12, 2009 at the age of 85, leaving behind a legacy that stands alone by any other Armenian American in the industry. In all, he made more than 100 films and appeared on television over 300 times in series and dramas. Retirement was not in his persona.
“In the early years, there were times when it was rough, times when I thought of packing it in, and then a job would open up,” he said in an interview shortly before his death. “And it would lead to another role and yet another until I had a career and a life.”
Of all the roles, none matched his portrayal of the despicable Talat Pasha in the 1982 Haig Toukhanian film, “Assignment Berlin.” An Armenian playing the part of a maligned Turkish assassin who instigated the 1915 genocide? “He had no misgivings about that, none that I know about,” said his daughter Margot Avery, herself an actress. “I believe he was very pleased that the project was being done and to be playing the bad guy. My father had that special Armenian hatred for the man and what better way to show the world his infamy. One of the pictures up on the wall in his personal gallery was of him in that role of Talat Pasha. My father told me once that he sometimes dreamed in Armenian.”
Avery never separated his Armenian life from Hollywood, not on purpose anyway. He changed his name as nearly every actor did prior to the 1970’s. But most who knew him recognized his deep-rooted Armenian heritage.
They even wrote him an Armenian detective character once (Aram Zacharian) that was supposed to spin off into his own TV series “Quincy M.E.” It never got off the ground, something to do with a management change at the network.
With Mike Connors, Avery performed a number of “Mannix” roles and was a close friend to director Dick Sarafian and Peter Palian, a documentary filmmaker associated with the Shah of Iran at one time.
Arlene Francis and husband Martin Gable were longtime friends through the Players’ Club, as was William Saroyan. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer wrote Avery a short play called “Havoc” back in 1975 to be a possible companion piece when Ben Gazzara was about to do “Huey” on Broadway, only to be rejected. Word had it there wasn’t enough in it for Gazzara.
But all was not lost. Avery performed it years later at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., during its inaugural season.
Avery also told the story of attending the opener of “The Music Man” with Saroyan and taking him backstage to meet star Robert Preston. “He said it was amazing to see two men so impressed with one another,” his daughter recalled.
Among the famous actors he appeared with were: Rod Steiger, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Peter Falk, Jack Klugman, Al Pachino, Jackie Gleason, Rodney Dangerfield, Sylvester Stallone, John Belushi, Robert Redford, Teri Garr, Henry Winkler, Sally Fields, Burt Reynolds, Burt Young, Sidney Poitier, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Art Carney, Anthony Quinn, and Mickey Rooney.
Avery would slip out of his usual “tough guy “groove. Sidney Poitier, with whom he had worked in “Edge of the City” (1957), cast him as a bumbling police lieutenant in “Let’s Do It Again” (1975). In another episode of “The Odd Couple,” he played a dentist who invents a superglue. In the Cheech and Chong film “Up in Smoke,” he had the role of a boss inside an upholstery factory.
One of his last, and more favorite parts, was that of a beloved Italian grandfather in “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which appeared Off-Broadway in 1998.
Fortified with a drink, he enjoyed fixing innocent bystanders with a look and then delivering his classic line, “I’ll eat your liver.” In truth, the man never stopped acting, even in real life.
Avery grew up in West Philadelphia, Pa., in the old neighborhood around 63rd and Locust Streets, which was then comprised of Armenian, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. He acted in productions of the Armenian Youth Theater. After serving as an Army flight instructor during World War II, he enrolled in the Bessie V. Hicks School of Drama in Philadelphia.
He was a member of the Philadelphia AYF during its inception years. Together with his brother Peter “Stucey” Der Abrahamian, they were familiar fixtures at Armenian dances and other socials.
Avery’s Dad Megerdich immigrated from Sepastia in 1907 and was able to bring his brothers to the United States. Megerdich’s father, Bedros Der Abrahamian, a Der Hayr at the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Sivas, was martyred during the genocide.
Avery’s mother Arousiag survived the massacre as a young wife and mother after being saved by an Arab in the Syrian Desert. She brought her sisters to America and started a new family life in Philadelphia.
Her life was portrayed in the factitious story “Mamigon,” penned by writer Jack Hashian, Avery’s cousin, who also wrote the classic spy thriller “The Eiger Sanction,” under the pen name Trevanian.
Avery was married to Margot Stevenson for 56 years, a stage actress mostly known for her role as Margot Lane in the radio show “The Shadow.” Best man at their wedding was renowned actor Rod Steiger.
Their life of caring for one another drew no boundaries.
“Attracted at a young age by his swarthy looks, wavy black hair, and piercing blue eyes, their differences in background and demeanor made for a great complement to a loving relationship,” said his nephew, Dro Abrahamian. “Their daughter [Margot] cared for them both over the last few years when they were bedridden.”
Avery was seen by the Philadelphia Armenian community as “the local boy who made good.” During the 1960’s and 1970’s especially, you could hear at church halls from Philly to Boston to Detroit how someone caught a rerun of “Columbo” or a movie featuring Avery.
“When he was not on a set, he made appearances at Armenian functions like the AYF Olympics or the old Philadelphia ARF-sponsored Armenian Week festivities in Atlantic City, N.J., or an April 24th rally in New York,” said his nephew.
There’s a story about how he attended the 1959 AYF Olympics in Philly and there was an evening at the theater where funny skits were performed. Avery and his buddy George Dombalagian were reigning champs, though improvisation was not exactly a forte.
Avery was versed in both Armenian and Turkish. Among his many travels, he visited Turkey and Sivas during a time when it was uncommon and perilous. He also visited with the Mekhitarists in Venice (where his father studied) and for years supported Camp Haiastan in Franklin, Mass.
He was an avid chef and wine connoisseur, often concocting Armenian dishes remembered from his youth when doing a show or entertaining his peers.
“He wasn’t a Hollywood star by any means but one of the hardest-working, familiar, sustainable, and longest-lasting actors you would find,” said his nephew. “Val would constantly view his work as just that and didn’t like talking about the entertainment business in a glamorous fashion.”
Top Val Avery films
1. “Hud” (1963) – ranch hand Jose
2. “Hombre” (1967) – stationmaster Delgato
3. “The Laughing Policeman” (1973) – police inspector
4. “Donnie Brasco” (1997) – gangster Trafficante
5. “Johnny Straccato” – TV series with John Cassavetes
6. “The Harder They Fall” (1956) – Humphrey Bogart’s last film
7. “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) – John Sturges’ classic western
8. “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) – Mafia psychopath Socks Parelli
9. “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984) – Mafia godfather
10. “Too Late Blues” (1961) – Frielobe
11. “Faces” (1968)
12. “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971)
13. “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976)
14. “Gloria” (1980)
15. “Up in Smoke” (1978)
16. “Assignment Berlin” (1982)
17. “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962)
18. “Easy Money” (1983)
Frequent TV appearances
“The Twilight Zone”
“The Odd Couple”
“Law and Order”
“Over the River and Through the Woods” (1998)