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Seneca, Actor and Musician, Dies

August 17, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Joe Seneca, who turned his work as a song-and-dance performer into an illustrious acting career in serious, acclaimed movies about slavery, black leaders and human dignity, has died.

He died Thursday morning from an asthma attack at his home on Roosevelt Island, said Dulcina Eisen, his agent. She said he had never revealed his age but she estimated he was in his late 70s.

Seneca most recently was seen as Reverend Street in the movie ``A Time to Kill,″ the courtroom thriller from the John Grisham novel. Two weeks ago, he finished filming a movie about slavery for British television called ``The Longest Memory.″

His first big film was ``The Verdict,″ in which he appeared opposite Paul Newman as an inept medical expert in a malpractice trial.

Eisen said Seneca was the only client she had in 24 years who would never do a television series. ``He did not want to be the same character every week and he didn’t want to be cute and he wanted to do important things.

``If the story was about slavery or dignity or politics or beauty and truth, he did it,″ she said, adding, ``I loved him for it but it was an agent’s nightmare.″

Seneca was born in Cleveland. He and his sister were raised by an aunt there, said Jackie Parton, whose husband Eddie Parton formed a song-and-dance group with Seneca and another friend after they graduated from high school.

They called their group the Three Riffs, and Jackie Parton said they were polished performers, always wearing tuxedos and appearing in the best supper clubs around the country. They sang together for 20 years, into the mid-1970s, with Bunny Walker replacing Howard Green when he died.

In the early 1960s, he wrote the song ``Break It to Me Gently″ with Diane Lampert. He also wrote ``Talk to Me.″

``He was a nice man and he had the most beautiful voice,″ Lampert said. ``He was a very gentle man.″

In the early 1970s, Seneca appeared on Broadway with James Earl Jones in ``Of Mice and Men.″ He also appeared in ``Little Foxes″ with Elizabeth Taylor and ``Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,″ for which he learned to play the trombone.

Seneca made the switch to movies, his agent said, after Sidney Lumet ``asked for the oldest black actor I could find″ for his new picture ``The Verdict.″

He also appeared in ``Silverado,″ ``Crossroads″ and ``Mississippi Masala.″

Television movies he appeared in include: ``The Vernon Johns Story″ opposite James Earl Jones, ``A Gathering of Old Men,″ ``The House of Dries Drear″ and ``Wilma.″

He also had guest appearances on about 25 television shows, including ``The Cosby Show.″

He is survived by his wife, Betty.

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