Ken Ruta, a highly skilled actor who was a fixture on Bay Area stages for more than five decades, died last month at the age of 89, and his death is only being confirmed by the Chronicle now. The cause was reportedly pneumonia brought on by a summer case of COVID-19.
Ruta had already been cast to reprise a role this December he has played at A.C.T. for over 15 years, that of the ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol — who comes to warn Ebenezer Scrooge that he'll be visited by three ghosts. It would have been the first time he had done the role since 2019, which is the last time A.C.T. staged the holiday-season play.
As the Chronicle reports, Ruta died at home on August 28 after testing positive for COVID in early August.
Ken Ruta was born in 1933 in Chicago and briefly attended Northwestern University before leaving to study acting at the Goodman Theatre. He was one of the original members of ACT's company when it moved to San Francisco from Pittsburg in 1967, and Ruta was a frequent collaborator with the theater's founding artistic director William Ball.
James Carpenter, another veteran of local stages and member of ACT's company of actors who played opposite Ruta many times over the years, including as Scrooge, tells the Chronicle, "Ken brought his character to life through his own wisdom and gravitas. Ken knew the weight of each word in the message he was delivering, no matter what the role he was playing."
ACT is planning a celebration of Ruta's life in December.
Backstage magazine declared Ruta one of America's living treasures in 2019, and they quoted one director who had worked with him as saying, "San Francisco has a treasure as far as acting is concerned—Ken Ruta. Working with a man of Ken's capacities, I feel I've been given a Stradivarius."
Ruta was a consummate actor who could take on character roles that stole shows as effortlessly as the big lead roles of King Lear and Prospero. He bemoaned what he saw as American theater's slipping into an age of flashy sets and visual theater, saying in a 2007 interview with the Mercury News, "[Audiences] don’t want to listen anymore. It’s all about seeing."
"But," he added, "it’s such a joy when you go to see a play that has something to say."
When asked in the interview if he agreed with assessments that serious theater might be dying out completely, Ruta replied, "They’ve been saying that for years, but it does seem like it gets closer and closer. But then you go and see some new play somewhere in some funky little theater with no scenery and no money, but it’s a play that’s trying to say something, and the people are serious about expressing what the author has written and then … it’s magic."
Ruta was known himself to appear on stages as tiny as the Exit Theater (RIP) in the Tenderloin, and as large as the big-city stages on which he played opposite David Bowie in a national tour of The Elephant Man.
As the Mercury News put it, "There is no major theater in the Bay Area where he hasn’t stolen a show."
Thankfully, Ruta was able to recount some of his history in and anecdotes of the theater in a televised conversation with current ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon in April 2021, as part of their "Virtually Speaking" series last year. And that entire video is below.
Ruta played so many roles, even he had likely lost count — a few highlights are given in the video above, and About the Artists has a rundown that goes back a couple of decades.
As he told Backstage in 2019, "At this age, you don't know where your life leaves off and the people you play begin. Why do we become actors? There's such an abundance of life in you that you want to live all these lives. There's so much you put in the coal bin of your mind over the years."