09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
If any actor seemed likely to wind up governing the nation, it wasn't Ronald Reagan, that affable eminence, but E.G. Marshall, who died of lung cancer on Aug. 24 at age 84 (although previous records indicate he was 88). In a career that spanned six decades, Marshall believably portrayed Presidents (Eisenhower, Truman and Ulysses S. Grant, all on TV), senators, tycoons (in 1997's Absolute Power, his last movie) and lawyers. With his granite composure and plainspoken authority, President Marshall would surely have stared down any threat to America. Recalls Jack Klugman, his costar in the classic 1957 jury movie Twelve Angry Men: "You actually believed this man never sweat."
And yet Marshall worked furiously. Most famous (and twice Emmy-awarded) for his performance as Lawrence Preston, the seasoned-but impassioned attorney on CBS's The Defenders from 1961 to 1965, he also acquitted himself brilliantly (as a TV M.D.) on The Bold Ones and Chicago Hope, as well as in plays (including The Crucible and Waiting for Godot) and movies (Compulsion, Nixon). "I'm only unemployed when I want to be," he once said. "I'm a utility man."
Of Norwegian stock, the Owatonna, Minn., native—the son of Charles G. Marshall, a telephone company employee, and his home-maker wife, Hazel—grew to enjoy hobnobbing with the sort of Washingtonians he so often portrayed. ("He had great friends in Congress," says his agent Clifford Stevens.) But he otherwise shunned the spotlight. The father of five children (two from a first marriage) lived quietly with his second wife, Judith, in Mount Kisco, N.Y., a suburb of New York City. "He was a particularly solitary, individual thinker," says Chicago Hope's Hector Elizondo. According to Stan Rogow, executive producer of Showtime's recent reprise of The Defenders, the nature-loving Marshall insisted on hiking despite his advancing cancer and contracted Lyme disease last year.
Marshall's sole showbiz affectation was his long refusal to explain his initials. "He told me 'Egregious Gregarious,' " says Susan Blakely, his costar in Russian Roulette (1992). But in a 1984 interview with a little-read supermarket circular, he confided that the "E" stood for Edda, from Norse legend, and the "G" for Gunnar, a name for Norse kings. He explained, "I got so tired of everyone mispronouncing 'Edda' as 'Edna' that I started saying, 'It's just E.G. Marshall.' "
John Hannah and Danelle Morton in Los Angeles and Joanne Fowler and Jennifer Longley in New York City