Vawter was born in Latham, New York, to Matilda (Buttoni) and Elton Lee Vawter. His maternal grandparents were Italian. He originated roles in Rumstick Road, Nayatt School, Point Judith (an epilog), Route 1 & 9, Hula, L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…), Frank Dell’s The Temptation of Saint Antony, North Atlantic, and Brace Up!. He appeared on video in Fish Story, and in the Group’s video pieces White Homeland Commando and Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It. In addition to his work with The Wooster Group, Vawter appeared in films, including King Blank, Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, generally playing small but memorable character roles. He also performed in theater pieces by Richard Foreman, Jeff Weiss, Mabou Mines, and The Performance Group. In his 1992 work for the stage, Vawter explored the themes of sexual identity in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, a series of two monologues that contrast the characters of two gay men who died of AIDS. The Jack Smith section was a recreation of Smith’s performance “What’s Underground About Marshmallows?” and the Roy Cohn section was written by Gary Indiana. It was directed by Greg Mehrten and created with Clay Shirky and Marianne Weems . The piece was released as a film directed by Jill Godmilow in which the sections were intercut.
Vawter’s last piece of work, considered his artistic testament, the Philoktetes-variations written by John Jesurun on his request, was performed while the actor was dying of HIV/AIDS. Based on the story about Philoctetes, the ancient Greek warrior whose wound smelled so intolerably noxious that he was banned to the uninhabited island of Lemnos and abandoned by his comrades-in-arms on the way to Troy, it has consequently also become a metaphor for AIDS, with Philoktetes as a plagued outcast. Vawter embodied Philoktetes three times in Jan Ritsema’s triptych in the Brussels’ Kaaitheater in 1994, using his own body naked and covered with purple Kaposi rash, thus making the connection between the performance’s “here and now” and the story’s “there and then” as well as between life and death, subject and abject in his first audience address when he said that he was suffering from AIDS: I am dying, I am on my way to the grave but am just doing this performance on the way. Vawter was a graduate of Siena College where he performed in Little Theater productions. Vawter died of a heart attack on April 16, 1994, in-flight on a commercial plane from Zürich to New York. He was 45. Vawter’s papers are held by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
- December, 09, 1948
- Latham, New York
- April, 16, 1994
- On a plane from Zürich to New York City
Cause of Death
- heart attack