Harry Philibosian, 80, of Philadelphia, a beloved figure in the local theater community who began acting professionally at age 57 without any formal training, died Saturday, March 17, of heart failure at home.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Mr. Philibosian began working in the dry cleaning business with his father after attending Temple University for two years. He delivered clothes as a driver before eventually opening his own dry cleaning store at Germantown and Ontario Avenues in 1973. He stayed in the dry cleaning business for 37½ years.
But in 1980, Mr. Philibosian signed up to perform in a fund-raising theater production at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, where he had been married and his children were baptized. Charles Colemann, a church member in the theater-masters program at Villanova University, staged a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Mr. Philibosian played a Protean, a simple role in the ensemble. It was enough to get him hooked on acting.
“He just loved acting so much,” said his wife, Harriet. “He came off the stage after that performance and just said, ‘You can’t imagine the feeling you get when you hear the orchestra playing.’”
She said she told him to pursue theater because she knew that he didn’t love the dry cleaning business. At the time she was working as a registered nurse, and their two daughters had already graduated from college.
Eventually Mr. Philibosian made the transition to community theater, where he met Joe Canuso, the founding artistic director of Theatre Exile on Allens Lane in Mount Airy. Canuso took a liking to him and started to direct Mr. Philibosian, culminating in the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
“Harry was unique, because he was a natural actor,” Canuso said. “He never took an acting class in his life, so it was all right from the heart. That’s why he was the perfect Philadelphia actor. There was no pretense and audiences really connected to that blue collar sensibility.”
Eventually Mr. Philibosian sold his dry cleaning business after Canuso told him that he was too good of an actor to simply pursue theater on the side. He quickly became one of the most sought-after Philly actors in his age group, appearing in up to five plays a year.
In 2007, Mr. Philibosian won three Barrymore Awards — Philly’s version of a Tony Award — for his performance and ensemble work as Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Besides being a talented actor, Mr. Philibosian is remembered for his generosity of spirit and ability to make people feel comfortable, no matter where he was. His daughter, Leigh, said that he considered everyone a friend, whether he had known them for years or fell into conversation with them at the grocery store.
“He loved laughing and telling stories his entire life,” she said. “He really was a performer. Everyone he knew had a ‘Harry’ story because he was so funny. My dad always said that he couldn’t believe that people were paying him to act because he loved it so much.”
Besides acting, Mr. Philibosian was also an avid golfer until his back stopped him from spending time on the range. As a teenager, he also played baseball with the Police Athletic League.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Philibosian is survived by daughter Susan Ingram and five grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 9:30 to 11:15 a.m. Friday, March 23, at St. James Episcopal Church, 3768 Germantown Pike, Collegeville, Pa, 19426, followed by a service at 11:30 a.m.
Donations to the church building fund can be made to the address above or online.