David Schramm, Blustery Comic Foil in ‘Wings,’ Dies at 73

By Neil Genzlinger

Though known from his TV role, he did much of his work on the stage, starting as an original Acting Company member.

David Schramm in a promotional photo for the long-running NBC sitcom “Wings.” He played the irascible owner of a small airline.
David Schramm in a promotional photo for the long-running NBC sitcom “Wings.” He played the irascible owner of a small airline.Credit...NBC, via Shutterstock
Neil Genzlinger

David Schramm, an acclaimed stage and television actor best known for his role as the irascible owner of a small airline on the long-running sitcom “Wings” in the 1990s, has died. He was 73.

Margot Harley, a founder of the Acting Company, where Mr. Schramm was an original member, announced his death on Sunday. She did not give a cause or say where and when he died.

Though well known from his signature television role, Mr. Schramm was first and foremost a stage actor. He was drawing attention in New York while still a student at the Juilliard School, where he was a member of the first graduating class of the drama division.

That division was created in 1968 under John Houseman, and its first class of students, graduating in 1972, also included Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and David Ogden Stiers.

The students’ work was so well received that Mr. Houseman and Ms. Harley, the drama division’s administrative director, formed the Acting Company, a professional troupe, in 1972, with the new graduates at its core. By 1973 the company was on Broadway with five plays in repertory, Mr. Schramm appearing in all of them.

He was often, as Mel Gussow put it in The New York Times in 1978, “the company’s resident old character man.” That year, at age 30, he was playing King Lear. Previously for the company, he had played an aging wanderer in Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” the philosophical old doctor Chebutykin in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” and the father of one of the young lovers in Molière’s “Scapin.” After five years with the Acting Company, Mr. Schramm became a regular on regional stages as well as in New York theaters. A turning point in his career came in 1988, when he played the male lead in the Garson Kanin comedy “Born Yesterday” opposite Rebecca de Mornay at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. The production drew rave reviews.

“His portrayal is a true heir to Jackie Gleason: loud, blustery, swift, an ungrammatical ball of suet, as unaware of his arrogance as of his limitations,” Sylvie Drake wrote in a review in The Los Angeles Times. “In spite of it all, Schramm succeeds in making Brock remarkably appealing — a sort of disconnected large pussycat, with the roar and the timing of the lion that he’s not.”

The television industry took note.

“Because of those reviews, I landed in every casting office in town,” Mr. Schramm told that newspaper in 1989. “I was the flavor of the month.”

He had done little television before that — his main credit had been playing Robert S. McNamara in the 1983 mini-series “Kennedy” — but suddenly he was turning up in episodes of “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy” and other shows.

And then, in 1990, came “Wings.” Mr. Schramm was cast as Roy Biggins, whose tiny airline shared a terminal on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts with one owned by two brothers, played by Tim Daly and Steven Weber. The cast also included Thomas Haden Church, Rebecca Schull and Crystal Bernard; Tony Shalhoub and Amy Yasbeck joined the ensemble later. The show ran for 172 episodes across seven seasons, a mainstay of the NBC schedule.

Biggins was a blustery, obnoxious fellow, who often played against Mr. Weber’s laid-back character. On Twitter, Mr. Weber remembered the skill that Mr. Schramm had brought to the role.

“His timing was never less than perfect,” Mr. Weber said, “his professionalism was always on display.”

David Schramm was born on Aug. 14, 1946, in Louisville, Ky. In school he won trophies for public speaking, and at 17 he was an apprentice at the Actors Theater of Louisville.

“I got $25 a week to clean the toilets and be in a play,” he told The Times of Trenton, N.J., in 2008, when he was in a production of Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” at the George Street Playhouse in nearby New Brunswick. “My big line in my very first one was, ‘I’m the station master, madam,’ and on opening night I said, ‘I’m the station madam, master.’ People must have been thinking, ‘Get this kid off the stage.’”

He kept at it, though, taking acting classes at Western Kentucky University, where a speech and theater professor, Mildred Howard, read about the new drama division starting at Juilliard and urged him to try out.

“She worked on two audition pieces with me,” he said, “arranged for the flight, packed a lunch, and said, ‘Go!’ I did and got accepted on the spot.”

Mr. Schramm made occasional appearances on Broadway after his initial turns in the 1970s, most recently in 2009 as the bigoted Senator Rawkins in a revival of the musical comedy “Finian’s Rainbow.” (Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called his performance “boisterously oily.”)

But the bulk of his stage work was in regional theaters. Critics praised his work in John Olive’s “The Voice of the Prairie” at Hartford Stage in 1987, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at the Berkshire Theater Festival in 2008, John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” at George Street in 2014, and many more.

“My specialty seems to be playing the loud, pompous, bombastic, verging-on-hysteria guy,” Mr. Schramm told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. “But I’d rather establish a totally different persona each time. It’s why I act.”

Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

As for “Wings,” Mr. Schramm told The Times of Trenton that he knew the show would be a success right from the start.

“When we sat around the table reading the first script,” he recalled, “and I saw this buffoon they created for me, this pompous guy who said garish things to women, and all the other rich characters, I turned to Rebecca” — Ms. Schull — “and said, ‘I think we’ve landed in a tub of butter.’ And we did.”