Howard Duff, 76, Character Actor; Got His Start As Seattle Announcer

Howard Duff, a Hollywood character actor who refined his trademark deep, resonant voice while working as a Seattle radio announcer, died early yesterday.

Duff, who played characters ranging from the hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade on weekly radio shows to Sheriff Titus Semple on the ``Flamingo Road'' television series, suffered a massive heart attack at his Santa Barbara, Calif., home, said his wife, Judy. He was 76.

He died a day after participating in a telethon to raise money for victims of last month's Santa Barbara fire, which left hundreds homeless.

Duff was born in Bremerton and grew up in Seattle. He began acting in school plays at Roosevelt High School only after he was cut from the school's basketball team, said his brother Douglas Duff of Seattle.

After graduating from high school in 1932, Duff got an announcer's job at KOMO radio. When he wasn't reading news on the air, he sat at his desk and practiced speaking, his wife said.

``He made his voice - it wasn't a God-given talent,'' said Judy Duff. ``He practiced by reading everything from soup commercials to Shakespeare. He manufactured his voice.''

By all accounts, the hard work paid off.

Duff's almost two dozen movie roles include Dustin Hoffman's lawyer in ``Kramer vs. Kramer,'' the groom's family doctor in Robert Altman's ``A Wedding,'' and the star of Mark Hellinger's ``Brute Force.''

He recently made guest appearances on such television series as ``Knots Landing'' and ``The Golden Girls.'' He had regular roles on TV shows such as ``Dante'' and ``Felony Squad.''

After an acting stint with the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, Duff took a job with a children's radio serial in San Francisco. When the show moved to Hollywood in 1938, Duff went along.

Noel Schram, a retired advertising executive who acted with Duff in Seattle, recalled yesterday that Duff was low key about the move.

``He was very matter-of-fact, very self-effacing,'' said Schram, who drove with Duff to Los Angeles. Once he got there, Duff's career took off.

He got the role of Sam Spade in the national radio show adopted from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 crime classic ``The Maltese Falcon.''

His first marriage was to movie actress Ida Lupino, with whom he starred in a situation comedy called ``Mr. Adams and Eve.'' In the show, which ran in 1956-57, Duff and Lupino played a married couple whose lives were invaded by show business pressures.

Duff and Lupino divorced in the early 1970s. They had a daughter, Bridget, who lives in Burbank, Calif.

He served in the Army in the 1940s, directing a weekly radio show. He also appeared as a guest on one of Bob Hope's radio shows before being discharged as a staff sergeant in 1945.

As Duff's career began to blossom, his personality remained unchanged, said his brother.

``To tell you the truth, he never did `go Hollywood,' '' Douglas Duff said. ``He loved to act. He didn't care for all of the glitter. He was a character actor who didn't want to be just another pretty face.''

It was while Duff was perfecting his technique as a character actor in a 1973 Connecticut summer stock rendition of Arthur Miller's ``The Price'' that he met his second wife, Judy.

The circumstances could not have been more uncomfortable, she said in a telephone interview yesterday.

She was an assistant producer of the play, and when she picked Duff up at the train station he was fuming.

``There was no air conditioning on the train from New York, the show was under-rehearsed, and he didn't like his accommodations,'' she recalled.

When Duff was introduced to the play's producer, he made his complaints known in a loud tone of voice. But after Judy explained that the producer was not at fault, Duff instantly apologized.

``He went out of his way to say he was wrong,'' said Judy, who married Duff in 1985. ``I was very impressed. This was not your usual Hollywood actor.''

Duff's body will be cremated. Memorial services will be held in Los Angeles, but the date has not yet been decided.