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Island Profile: Forrest Compton, soldier, actor, Islander

The Shelter Island community was saddened to learn of the death of Forrest Compton, who succumbed to the COVID-19 coronavirus while hospitalized.

Here’s a profile of Forrest by Charity Robey, which appeared in February 2019.

In 1974, Forrest Compton, a 50-year-old LA-based actor, had just been hired to play Mike Karr, the principal character on the long running soap opera, “The Edge of Night.”

Slated to appear in two episodes a week for the next 13 weeks, he needed an apartment in New York City near the studio, so when he heard about a one-bedroom on East 72nd he went to see Al, the super.

Forrest later learned that Al was such a devotee of “The Edge of Night,” that he locked his office door every day at 2 p.m. to watch uninterrupted. When Forrest mentioned that he had just been hired to play Mike Karr, the super said, “You’re getting that apartment.”

Forrest later heard that Al was ticketed on a Florida highway because he pulled his car over to watch the soap on a portable television, and then objected when the officer informed him that stopping on the shoulder for a non-emergency was a violation of the law. Such was the power of live, daytime television in the days before cable and DVRs.

Forrest played the role until the show ended 14 years later, and he still has that one-bedroom apartment. His acting career was long and successful, and along the way, he and his wife Jeanne found a house on Little Ram Island, where they have been part of the Shelter Island community since the 1970s.

Forest was born in 1925 and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania. His father, who sold aluminum pots and pans and worked as a chemist in a steel mill, was determined that his son and only child would have the opportunity to have the fine education that did not come to him. Then World War II intervened.

By August 1944, Forrest was with the 103rd Infantry Division in France and saw his first action in Alsace, where he was wounded in the leg by a German mortar shell. Six weeks later, he was back with his unit, and later bore witness to the atrocity of the Holocaust.

“The Germans were retreating,” he remembered. “We had a long column and our unit came across a camp, and across the field came skeletons in purple and white stripes — Jews from the concentration camp — hundreds of them asking us, ‘Warum. Why? Why did you take so long?’”

After the war, Forrest attended Swarthmore, where one of his professors helped him find a spot in a summer community theater at a Quaker resort called Buck Hill.

“After that summer at Buck Hill, I was on my way,” he said.

He went on to complete a three-year program at the Yale Drama School. “They used to say if you stayed the whole three years, you’d probably amount to nothing.” Forrest said. “The big names never stayed for three years.”

Paul Newman, a classmate of Forrest’s, stayed one year. “He was a great guy, charming, sharp, six months older than me. I remember Paul making salad dressing back then,” he said. “Once the agents saw Paul and those blue eyes and his charm, he was on television a month later.”

The first television commercial Forrest did was memorable. “It was for Tavern Blue Cheese Crackers,” he recalled. “Me and a very pretty girl sitting next to me eating these crackers. The pitch man was a guy in a tuxedo. I poured the crackers into a nice bowl and only one or two crackers came out.

The next take everything came out at once. By the third or fourth take, the pitch man was having a little trouble with the words. From the back of the studio a woman working for the sponsor said, ‘Why don’t we get somebody else?’ So, of course he completely fell apart. By the time the girl and I were released they were on their 23rd take.”

In the late 1950s, Forrest decided to spend a couple of months in Los Angeles, which was becoming the center for television production and commercials, with a return airplane ticket to New York in his pocket.

He found plenty of work, appearing in 42 episodes of “Gomer Pyle,” as Lieutenant Colonel Edward Gray; five episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes” playing a German soldier; and episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “My Three Sons,” and “Mayberry RFD.” What he thought would be a few weeks turned into 14 years.

In 1971, a call from his father’s doctor convinced him he had to come back to New York to help his ailing parent. During that period, Forrest spent a few weekends at the home of a friend on the South Fork playing tennis at a yacht club and going to the beach.

“One day it rained, and we went for a drive and crossed Shelter Island from the South Fork to the North Fork, a quick look, but a charming look.”

When Forrest met Jeanne Sementini at a party, she was almost 40, he was almost 50, and neither had ever been married. A few weeks later she invited Forrest to go to the opera with her when one of her boyfriends got tickets to “Carmen,” and then couldn’t make it.

“She was just different enough from me that it was going to be an adventure,” Forrest said. “I think she felt the same way.” They married in 1975.

Jeanne and Forrest bought the house on Little Ram Island in 1978. Their first look at the 1929 home that had previously been owned by a relative of Theodore Roosevelt was on a cold, windy day in December.

As Forrest walked up the stone steps to take in the view, he was battered by the blast. “Greg Price, the broker, said, ‘You will always have a breeze here,’” Forrest said. “I took a look at the water and said, ‘This is it.’”

The couple began living on the Island full time about 20 years ago, a change he attributes to “the allure of the people out here,” people such as Bill Grimbol, pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church from 1986 to 2011.

“At an Easter sunrise service, three ministers gave a talk,” he said. “I’d been in Sunday school as a kid, but I drifted away. His sermon and his whole attitude were so appealing that I joined the church, and I’m still involved.”

Forrest is often asked to read the scriptures on Sunday. “Everything else is falling apart. I can do the reading,” he said. “I’m surprised I’m still here. I can fake things a lot.”

At 77, after a decade of coronary illness controlled by drugs, Forrest’s cardiologist told him the time had come for bypass surgery, and scheduled him for a date in January of 2002. “I told him that I’d been waiting a long time to see “The Producers” with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and I’ve got tickets for the 12th of February, two or three weeks away,” he said. “On the 12th I saw the show and on the 14th I had the bypass.”

Forrest has been an active participant in the Shelter Island Friends of Music since the 1980s, and in 2012 became president. He introduced last Sunday’s enchanting piano and clarinet concert for over 100 music lovers in the sun-filled Presbyterian Church with his signature combination of humility, humor and perfect diction.

Age and recent politics have done nothing to dim his fundamental optimism.

“Despite what is happening in this country now, people overall are kind, the goodness in most people is there,” Forrest said. “There are more good people than ones who are selfish and self-serving. It’s been true in my life, and I think in most people’s lives.”

Lightning Round — Forrest Compton
Favorite place on Shelter Island? My friend Dick Behrke’s tennis court.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Malibu Beach.

When was the last time you were elated? When we got our last dog, Pookie.

When was the last time you were afraid? The night before my bypass.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The Library’s celebrity writer luncheon.

Favorite movie or book? “A Walk in the Sun” is my favorite movie.” “Catch 22” is my favorite book.

Favorite food? Chocolate ice cream.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Bill Grimbol.

Most respected elected official? JFK.