James Newell, 1940-2022, In Memoriam

By Fredric Dannen

It was March 2017, my first time working with Jim Newell, the founder and artistic director of the San Miguel Playhouse. I was producing and directing a live radio drama at the Playhouse called “Tooth and Claw” and had cast Jim as Malcolm Geary, a 70-something scientist living in Galápagos. Though I had long admired Jim’s acting, I did not yet appreciate the full scope of his abilities. I was about to get a demonstration.

The play opens with the arrival in Galápagos of biologist Schuyler Baines, the new head of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Geary knows Baines is his illegitimate daughter but dares not tell her. They grow close. After Baines resigns her job and bids Geary farewell, she inquires, “I never knew my father…but I’d like to think he was someone like you. Would that be all right?” He answers, “That would be fine.”

At our first rehearsal, Jim read the line well, but in a moment of whimsy I said, “Jim, the next time you say that line, break our hearts.” He did exactly that, declaiming four one-syllable words in such a way that the entire cast was left misty-eyed. (The “Tooth and Claw” production can be heard in its entirety on San Miguel’s cultural podcast channel smapodcast.com.)

Two weeks ago, on July 21, Jim Newell broke our hearts again. While at home recovering from surgery for a brain hematoma he died at about 1 in the morning, in the presence of his wife of the past 25 years, Judy Newell. He was 81. San Miguel had lost one of its most important cultural figures, the driving force behind the San Miguel Playhouse, a converted salon de fiestas, which opened on October 14, 2014, with a production of “Moonlight and Magnolias,” a comedy of old Hollywood. Jim played movie director Victor Fleming, a role he reprised just this past November, in what proved to be his final completed performance.

Building the San Miguel Playhouse and running his own theater, he said, “was my dream.”

In person, Jim could be loud and bumptious, but as an actor and director he was all discipline and focus. He had a Ph.D. in theater arts from Wayne State University, in Detroit, and had learned every facet of his craft. Jim knew how to block a herd of actors in a complicated scene and how to light the furthest inch of a thrust stage.

Born and raised in Chicago, the son of an Irish father and Lebanese Maronite mother, James Newell was sent to private Jesuit schools and then packed off to a Catholic college. He was not a religious man. Having stumbled into acting while still in his teens, he once told Judy that he went into theater because at a strict Catholic school it was the best way to meet girls.

Theater remained his passion, particularly Shakespeare. A six-week run as Macbeth in Detroit was a career highlight. His favorite all-time role was Starbuck, the flimflam man at the heart of N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker.” He had supporting parts in mostly forgettable movies and the occasional television show, including the final episode of “Dallas.” The real money came from commercials. For years Jim Newell was the face of Jell-O, perhaps its most visible pitchman apart from Bill Cosby. At his earnings peak he settled into a manse in Los Angeles that he dubbed “the house that Jell-O built.”

In L.A. he met Judy, herself an accomplished actor. Jim, who was divorcing his first wife, moved in with Judy but had no plans to remarry.  That changed after the couple visited Judy’s mother in Montgomery, Alabama, and were assigned separate bedrooms. Judy still remembers her mother’s admonition, “I will not have the neighbors making disparaging remarks about my daughter!”

Judy also recalls Jim telling her about his first acting role, a bit part in a murder mystery at a Chicago theater, a fundraiser for Jim’s high school football team. He had to walk through a door onto the stage, and he was nervous. “But the second he walked through that door,” Judy says, “he felt completely at home, like, ‘This is where I belong.’”  That ease, that confidence, marked him as an exceptional actor.

Marcela Brondo, creative director of theater company La Troupe México, esteemed Jim both as an actor and a friend. She once noted, “When Jim is on stage he trusts completely in the fiction. Whatever happens, he flows with it.” True enough, when Jim acted nothing fazed him. Once, while delivering a soliloquy, he casually reached into his pocket to switch off his ringing cellphone without dropping a single word. In a Playhouse production of “The Odd Couple» a doorbell failed to chime on cue and all the other actors (including me) stood frozen in panic. Not Jim. “I think I hear somebody knocking,” he said.

Apart from Judy Newell, Jim is survived by his first wife, Mary, two children from his first marriage, Jamie and Megan, and two grandchildren. 

There will be a service for Jim at a future date, to be determined. And, needless to say, it will be held at his theater. To co-opt his Jell-O line, the San Miguel Playhouse is the house that Jim built.  It will continue to run in his memory.