Atlanta actor and voice artist Stuart Culpepper died of natural causes at age 84 on June 26. The beloved thespian appeared in many stage shows, films, and his voice – dubbed “the voice of God” for its deep, authoritative power – could be heard in countless advertisements. He also appeared on tv and in films – most notably “In the Heat of the Night” and the movie adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ novel “A Lesson Before Dying.” Former Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key described Culpepper as one of “Atlanta’s finest actors” in a tribute on social media. Here, our theatre critic Manning Harris reminisces about his former teacher and friend.
Stuart Culpepper was a true Renaissance man of Atlanta theatre — actor, director, teacher, writer, and friend.
I first met Stuart in the early 1970’s, shortly after I moved to Atlanta. I read in Creative Loafing that acting classes were being given at the Callenwolde Fine Arts Center I’d been interested in acting since childhood and had performed in plays all through college, so I drove over to Callenwolde and enrolled in a class taught by Stuart.
I liked him immediately; Stuart had an easy-going, charming way about him with a twinkle in his eye and put all his adult students at ease as he assigned us scenes or monologues. He also had “the voice.”
You may know that Stuart Culpepper was one of Atlanta’s most successful voice-over actors ever and was famous for having “the voice of God.” No one who heard him sing the praises of Ellman’s “diamonds and gold jewelry” on the radio could forget him. In my opinion, he was every bit as impressive a voice-over artist as Morgan Freeman; the timbre of both actors is similar.
I knew that Stuart was a truly fine theatre and film actor also, but I only saw him in two shows that I recall. One was a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (before the film came out) as a part of Atlanta’s Winter Play Season at the now-defunct Peachtree Playhouse. This production was electrifying and justly became a legend.
Some years later, I saw Stuart play the lead role of Dodge in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Buried Child” at the 14th Street Playhouse. Stuart was magnificent, as was the play. He owned the stage; it was a thrilling evening of powerful yet funny theatre — unforgettable.
On a personal note, I was teaching high school, but I decided to take private voice-over lessons from Stuart. These were fun and enlightening. I remember being impressed by his vast collection of classical recordings, especially opera. Stuart was not a singer, but he loved and appreciated the beauty of the human voice.
And he loved performance — period. One of our most exciting times together was trekking to the Omni to see the Rolling Stones in 1975. The Stones were at their peak; I remember when it was over, he said, “Manning, this was theatre — pure and simple.” And it was.
Another time, Stuart confided in me that in the 1960’s he spent some time in New York. One evening at a party he met the young Barbra Streisand, who was appearing in “Funny Girl” on Broadway. Stuart and Barbra had a nice chat; Barbra asked him if he had seen her show. He replied he couldn’t get tickets; and she said, “I can take care of that.” And she did; he also got to visit her backstage after the show. I happen to be a longtime Streisand uberfan; I was and am mightily impressed.
Stuart Culpepper was a huge force in the arts in Atlanta for a long time. As the years went on, we didn’t see each other very often, but I will always treasure our friendship, what he taught me, and the many fun times we had together. The arts community in Atlanta has lost a true giant.