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Award-winning local actor dies

He has a heart attack during Guys and Dolls.

Published November 4, 2006


SPRING HILL - Thursday's big opening night audience for the musical Guys and Dolls at Stage West Community Playhouse settled in for the second act: arguably, the funniest part of the show.

On stage, the hero, Sky Masterson confronts his gambling rival, Big Julie. Sky belts him right in the belly, shifts his shoulders and starts laying down the rules.

Only this time, the action failed to follow the script.

About 15 seconds later, Big Julie - in real life 67-year-old award-winning actor George Koprowski - suddenly stepped forward and fell full length onto the stage with a thud.

A murmur went through the audience. "Did that guy hit him too hard?" someone asked in a stage whisper.

"I've seen this show before, and I don't remember this part," said another.

Then a hovering actor shouted, "Call 911. Someone call 911." A woman - it turned out to be Mr. Koprowski's wife - ran up the steps by the orchestra pit and crouched by his side.

The dark green curtains closed, but the actors' microphones stayed on and eerie voices came through the overhead speakers. "George, George," then the sound of a slap, a cough, a moan.

Moments later, Mr. Koprowski died, as his wife of 13 years, Olivia, a registered nurse who rushed from the audience, and cast member Larry Becker, also a nurse, frantically administered CPR.

"It was a massive heart attack," his widow said Friday morning. "He died right on the stage. We never got him back."

The belly punch, of course, was not real.

"There's no impact at all; it's all just fake," said Frank Cataldo, a longtime actor who plays Masterson. "I stop a foot away from him. I swing my back to the audience and stomp my foot (for the sound)."

Cataldo did come close enough to see that Mr. Koprowski was perspiring heavily, and he did note that he had dropped a couple of lines.

"I thought he was nervous -it was opening night and all," Cataldo said.

Olivia Koprowski said her normally active husband had been feeling down for about a month. "He didn't have his usual energy," she said. In fact, he'd made an appointment to see a doctor as soon as the play closes on Nov. 19. He had never had a heart problem, she said, but he did have mild diabetes. And even at 6 feet 1, he was carrying some extra pounds at 270.

Mr. Koprowski retired and moved to Florida in 1995 after a career as a New York bus driver.

He remained active, serving as commander of Homosassa Flotilla 15-4 of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in 2000-2001, where he trained others in boating skills.

He also played a mean game of baseball.

"He was in minor league baseball when he was a young man," Mrs. Koprowski said. His team was Western Union in New York City. "He was a baseball fanatic."

He was Big Julie

Mr. Koprowski accidentally discovered acting in 1996 when a friend persuaded him to try out for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the tiny Playhouse 19 in Crystal River.

"He thought he'd get a little part," Mrs. Koprowski said. But he got the plum role of J.B. Biggley, the blustery boss at the mythical corporation in the play.

He went on to play in more shows at Playhouse 19 and then Citrus County Art League. In 1999, he drove south to be in a show at Stage West, returning there in 2002 to win a HAMI acting award for his reprisal of the Biggley role in that theater's version of How to Succeed.

But the role of Big Julie was the one he always wanted, Mrs. Koprowski said. He had missed his chance earlier when Playhouse 19 did the show because the Koprowskis had already planned a vacation. When the show was announced at Stage West, he jumped at the chance to do it.

The director, Peter Clapsis, told him "You are Big Julie," Mrs. Koprowski said.

"He lived, breathed and ate Big Julie," she said. "He was having the time of his life. For him to die on the stage doing Big Julie was just perfect. The only thing that could have been better was to stretch a single into a double."

The show must go on

The Spring Hill Fire and Rescue Department arrived within minutes after the call was put out. They worked on Mr. Koprowski for a while, as shaken actors and crew ambled around the parking lot in disbelief.

Someone remembered that Mr. Koprowski had put three dozen red roses into the backstage refrigerator to give to every female cast and crew members after the show.

"This is something George always liked to do," said his friend and fellow actor Betsy Glasson.

Earlier, inside, Clapsis had told the audience the obvious: The show simply couldn't go on. Slowly, people filed out of the auditorium, car doors slammed, and the parking lot emptied.

Then the ambulance left, headed for Oak Hill Hospital about 15 minutes away.

The actors went back into the auditorium and sat in silence, awaiting the arrival of a minister/counselor that the fire and rescue people had called in. Clapsis paced back in forth in front of them. Someone said a prayer.

The question was, Should the show go on, in theater tradition?

"I think it's what George would want us to do," Clapsis said. Then he left it up to the actors. The decision seemed unanimous.

Clapsis, who is about 7 inches shorter than Mr. Koprowski, said he will play Big Julie.

Besides his wife, Mr. Koprowski leaves behind three children and five stepchildren. Mrs. Koprowski said there will be a wake at St. Thomas Catholic Church on Tuesday -"that's Election Day, and everybody will be out anyway" - and a the funeral on Wednesday.

Mr. Koprowski is at Wilder-Fountain Funeral Home in Homosassa.

[Last modified November 4, 2006, 07:39:23]

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