Val Avery, As He Appeared To His Loved Ones

Val Avery Remembered as Actor Personified


By Tom Vartabedian

NEW YORK — 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.

Val Avery in “The Amityville Horror”

Throughout a film career that spanned 50 years, Avery was not only just a journeyman player but treated every role as if it were a contender for the Academy Awards.

For that reason alone, he landed some of the best parts alongside some of 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 December 12 at age 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.

According to IMDB, the online database, among the films he starred in were: “The Harder They Fall” (1956, his feature film debut); “Edge of the City” (1957), “Last Train from Gun Hill” (1959), “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), “Hud” (1963), “Hombre” (1967), “Faces” (1968), “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971), “The Anderson Tapes” (1971), “Papillon

Val Avery with Sean Connery in “The Anderson Tapes”

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(1973), “Let’s Do It Again” (1975), “Up in Smoke” (1978), “The Wanderers” (1979), “Easy Money (1983),” “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984, my personal favorite); Avery is marvelous as the mobster who cuts off Eric Roberts’ thumb and “Donnie Brasco” (1997). He also had a lengthy C.V. on television, appearing on such shows as “Johnny Staccato,” “The Untouchables,” “The Defenders,” “East Side/West Side,” “The Fugitive,” “The Wild Wild West,” “Gunsmoke,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Ironside,” “The F.B.I.,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Columbo” and “Quincy, M.E.”

Val Avery in “Minnie and Moskowitz”

“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 Talaat Pasha in the 1982 Haig Toukhanian film, “Assignment Berlin.” An Armenian playing the part of a maligned Turkish assassin who instigated the Genocide?

Val Avery, As Talaat Pasha in “Assignment Berlin”

“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 Talaat 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 1970s. 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, but it never got off the ground. With Mike Connors, Avery performed in a number of “Mannix” episodes.

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, NY, 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,” the daughter recalled.

Among the famous actors he appeared with were: Rod Steiger, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Peter Falk, Jack Klugman, Al Pacino, 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.

Val Avery with Sophia Loren in “Courage”

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 type of glue. In the Cheech and Chong film “Up in Smoke,” he played the role of a boss inside an upholstery factory.

One of his last and 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, Penn., in the old neighborhood around 63rd and Locust Streets, which was then composed 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 Sebastia in 1907 and was able to bring his brothers to the United States. Megerdich’s father, Bedros Der Abrahamian, a priest at the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Sivas, was killed 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.” Actor Rod Steiger was their best man.

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 1960s and 1970s 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, NJ, or an April 24th rally in New York,” said his nephew.

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.”

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