RIP: Professor and acting veteran Lew Palter passed away at age 94 from lung cancer at his Los Angeles home on May 21
Titanic star Lew Palter passed away at age 94 from lung cancer at his Los Angeles home on May 21.
The New York City-born thespian is perhaps best remembered for his role as real-life department store magnate Isidor Straus, who embraced his wife in bed, in James Cameron’s critically-acclaimed $2.2B-grossing 1997 drama Titanic, which streams July 1 on Netflix.
Audiences might also remember Lew as Associate Justice Benjamin Halperin opposite Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh in Ronald Neame’s 1981 Supreme Court dramedy First Monday in October, which earned $12.4M at the global box office.
Palter was also an esteemed professor at the CalArts School of Theater and his students included four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, and two-time Emmy nominee Cecily Strong.
On May 22, Schmigadoon! producer-star Cecily Strong – who graduated from CalArts in 2006 – shared a touching post about how instrumental Palter was in pushing her away from serious acting and into more comedic roles.
‘What a great teacher. Lew Palter. Scratched his big giant ears and hit his “Ks” so wet and reminded us often that as the great Bertold Brecht said, “The proof is in the pudding,”‘ the 39-year-old Illinois native wrote on Instagram.
Haunting scene: The New York City-born thespian is perhaps best remembered for his role as real-life department store magnate Isidor Straus, who embraced his wife in bed as the ship sank in the 1997 drama Titanic
Real life tragedy: Isidor Straus and his wife Ida died on the Titanic. Isidor co-owned Macy’s with his brother, Nathan
‘Lew directed me in my second favorite play at CalArts – Anton in Show Business by Jane Martin with all the other girls who weren’t cast in the big shows our second year. We started out feeling defeated because we weren’t picked for the bigger shows but ended up feeling like we were in the best show of the season because people loved it (and the proof is in the pudding after all). I played a Polish director named Wikewich and I got to scream to the audience how “I f*** you with my art.”
‘Lew told me he thought I should take a class at the Groundlings. I said no way I’m a serious actor. Turns out Lew was right. I took the class at the Groundlings. It brought me back to Chicago to study improv there. Then I ended up auditioning for Lorne Michaels. Thanks Lew. And thanks because for so many years I got to brag that my teacher was the old guy in Titanic that chose to stay in bed. Lew knew how to live life well. How to teach students to be not only better actors but better people. He got to a beautiful 94. The proof is in the pudding.’
Cecily – who often sang and did impersonations of Judge Jeanine Pirro among others – was a hilarious member of the cast on NBC’s long-running sketch comedy series for 11 seasons spanning 2012 until her final episode aired on December 17.
Westworld star Ed Harris got to know Lew (born Leon) during the two years he attended CalArts, which he graduated from in 1975.
Palter – who retired from teaching in 2013 – also taught The Wonder Years narrator Don Cheadle at CalArts, which he graduated from in 1986.
The US Army veteran scored several roles in TV shows including Delvecchio, The Flying Nun, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The Doris Day Show, Columbo, The Brady Bunch, Baretta, The Waltons, Cagney & Lacey, and The A-Team.
Lew also directed numerous off-Broadway plays including Tom Topor’s drama Nuts for the Los Angeles Stage Company, which eventually got the big-screen treatment in 1987 with Barbra Streisand playing the manslaughtering call girl.
Throwback! Audiences might also remember Lew (L, seated) as Associate Justice Benjamin Halperin opposite Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh in Ronald Neame’s 1981 Supreme Court dramedy First Monday in October, which earned $12.4M at the global box office
‘What a great teacher’: On May 22, Schmigadoon! producer-star Cecily Strong – who graduated from CalArts in 2006 – shared a touching post about how instrumental Palter was in pushing her away from serious acting and into more comedic roles (pictured April 19)
The 39-year-old Illinois native wrote on Instagram: ‘Lew told me he thought I should take a class at the Groundlings. I said no way I’m a serious actor. Turns out Lew was right. I took the class at the Groundlings. It brought me back to Chicago to study improv there. Then I ended up auditioning for Lorne Michaels. Thanks Lew’
In demand: Lew scored several roles in TV shows including Delvecchio, The Flying Nun, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The Doris Day Show, Columbo, The Brady Bunch, Baretta, The Waltons, Cagney & Lacey, and The A-Team (pictured in 2018)
‘You will be missed by so many’: Palter is survived by his daughter Catherine Read Palter (L) from his 64-year marriage to L.A. Law actress Nancy Vawter, who passed away in 2020
Legacy: The US Army veteran is also survived by his three grandchildren Sam, Tessa, and Miranda Morgan (L)
Palter was highly educated having received his bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, his master’s degree from Alfred University, and a Ph.D. in theater from Northwestern University.
The Steagle star is survived by his daughter Catherine Read Palter from his 64-year marriage to L.A. Law actress Nancy Vawter, who passed away in 2020.
Lew is also survived by his three grandchildren Sam, Tessa, and Miranda Morgan.
News of his Palter’s passing comes amid a spike in public interest focused on the Titanic after the recent tragedy in which five people died in the OceanGate Titan submersible exploring the remains of the ill-fated ship in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
In a direct link, Wendy Rush – the widow of late OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush – is descended from Isidor and Ida Straus, the wealthy New York couple who Palter and Elsa Raven played in the 1997 James Cameron film.
Her great-great-grandparents, Isidor and Ida Straus, died in the historic disaster – with Isidor being a co-founder of the Macy’s department store.
They were also immortalized in the movie, where they are shown in an iconic scene, fictionally embracing on their bed as water rushed onto the ship.
Killed in last week’s implosion were Rush; Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood; British explorer Hamish Harding; and French Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet.
Details: Wendy Rush is the wife of OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who is among the five people missing on board the submersible. Her great-great-grandparents died on the Titanic
Heart-wrenching: Isidor and Ida Straus are depicted lying on a bed as the water rises in the 1997 film
Wendy Rush, born Wendy Hollings Weil, married engineer and entrepreneur Stockton Rush in 1986. She is descended from Isidor and Ida Straus’s daughter Minnie, who married Dr. Richard Weil in 1905.
Their son, Richard Weil Jr., later served as president of Macy’s New York, and his son, Dr. Richard Weil III, is Wendy Rush’s father, The New York Times reported.
Isidor and Ida were two of the wealthiest people onboard the Titanic when it sank to the bottom of the ocean during its maiden voyage – from Southampton, England to New York City – after striking an iceberg.
The couple had in real life visited their native Germany, and were travelling back to the United States on the Titanic with Ida’s recently-appointed maid, Ellen Bird, and Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing.
The couple typically only journeyed on German vessels, but were taken in by the allure of a trip on the brand new Titanic and the luxury offered onboard.
This decision would lead to a tragic end to their love story, but not before the couple displayed one final act of compassion.
As the Titanic began to sink, Isidor and Ida were offered seats on a lifeboat – her as a woman, and him as a well-known former congressman and co-owner of Macy’s department store – giving them priority over other passengers.
But Isidor refused, saying he would not go until all the women and children had gone, and Ida then refused to go without her husband of 40 years.
This moment, witnessed by other passengers, was also depicted in a deleted scene from Cameron’s Titanic.
Memorial: A statue to the couple sits at the intersection of Broadway and West End Avenue at W. 106th Street in Manhattan (pictured). It depicts a young woman lying on her side on what appears to be a divan, one leg draped over the side
Pictured: The memorial to Isidor and Ida Straus at Broadway and West End Avenue
Pictured: A New York Times article showing Mayor Mitchel speaking at dedication of a fountain erected at Straus Park 106th Street and West End Ave), in memory of Isidor Straus and his wife, who lost there lives on the Titanic, Sunday, April 25, 1915
Ida gave her mink coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, to keep her warm as she sailed away on the lifeboat. According to eyewitness accounts, the pair were seen embracing on the deck of the ocean liner as it went down.
According to an archived copy of the New York Times published on May 13, 1912, a memorial for the couple was held in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
The memorial was ‘impressive and reverential’, the newspaper wrote at the time, reporting that the venue was too small to contain all the mourners who wanted to attend, resulting in the crowd spilling out onto the streets outside.
A number of notable figures at the time were in attendance, including the then-city Mayor William Jay Gaynor and industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
Today, a memorial statue to the couple sits at the intersection of Broadway and West End Avenue at W. 106th Street in Manhattan. It depicts a young woman lying on her side on what appears to be a divan, one leg draped over the side.
The couple’s great-grandson Paul A. Kurzman spoke about his ancestors in 2017.
‘My great-grandmother Ida stepped into the lifeboat expecting that her husband would follow,’ the couple’s great-grandson Paul A. Kurzman told NBC’s The Today Show in 2017.
‘When he didn’t follow, she was very concerned and the ship’s officer in charge of lowering that particular lifeboat said, “Well, Mr. Straus, you’re an elderly man…and we all know who you are….Of course you can enter the lifeboat with your wife.
‘And, my great-grandfather said, “No. Until I see that every woman and child on board this ship is in a lifeboat, I will not enter into a lifeboat myself,”‘ he said.
Isidor’s body was found at sea roughly two weeks after the disaster, archives show. Ida’s body has never been recovered.
A locket was recovered from Isidor’s body, which Kurzman says contained two photographs: ‘One of the photographs was of their eldest son, Jesse, and the other was of their eldest daughter, and that, of course, was Sara, my grandmother.’
Wendy Rush had visited the Titanic wreckage three times with her husband’s company in the last two years, and works as OceanGate’s communications director.