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William Mills "Bill" Irwin (born April 11, 1950) is an American actor and clown noted for his contribution to the renaissance of American circus during the 1970s. He is known for his vaudeville-style stage acts, but has made a number of appearances on film and television and won a Tony Award for a dramatic role on Broadway.

Early life

Irwin was born in Santa Monica, Californiamarker, the son of Elizabeth (née Mills), a teacher, and Horace G. Irwin, an aerospace engineer. He graduated from Oberlin Collegemarker in 1973 with a degree in theater arts, and from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College the following year. In 1975, he helped found the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, Californiamarker. He left the company in 1979, and decided to pursue stage work.


Irwin created a run of highly regarded stage shows that incorporated elements of clowning, often in collaboration with composer Doug Skinner. These works included The Regard of Flight (1982), Largely New York (1989), Fool Moon (1993), The Harlequin Studies (2003), and Mr. Fox: A Rumination (2004). Mr. Fox is a production that Irwin has worked on for years, a biography of 19th century clown George Washington Lafayette Fox that also has autobiographical elements.

In 1996, Irwin performed with The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps at the 1996 Summer Olympics, in a "band on the run" sequence where he played Dr. Hubert Peterson of the fictitious Federation of United Marching Associations of America.

Although Irwin is best known for his theatrical clown work, he has also been featured in a number of dramatic plays. Irwin appeared in 1988 on stage with Steve Martin and Robin Williams for a production of Waiting for Godot in the role of Lucky. Lucky's only lines consist of a famous 500-word-long monologue, an ironic element for Irwin since much of his clown-based stage work was silent. He appeared in 2002 with Sally Field in the replacement cast of The Goat or Who is Sylvia?. In 2005, he starred alongside Kathleen Turner as George in a revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He directed the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company production of A Flea in Her Ear. In 2009 he will play Vladimir (Didi) --not Lucky as previously stated here-- when Waiting for Godot opens on Broadway.

Irwin's first featured film role was in 1980, appearing as Ham Gravy in Robert Altman's Popeye starring Robin Williams. He has appeared in over 20 films, mainly in supporting roles. Irwin's principal film roles included My Blue Heaven, a 1990 comedy with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, and Eight Men Out, which tells the true story of the "Black Sox" gambling scandal of 1919. Irwin tap-danced in a leading role in 1991's Stepping Out with Liza Minnelli and appeared as a mime in the Paul Mazursky film Scenes from a Mall alongside Woody Allen and Bette Midler. He appeared in film adaptations of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Laramie Project and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 2006, Irwin played the solitary Mr. Leeds in M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water and had a small role in 2007's Across the Universe. He received critical acclaim for his role as Paul, father to Anne Hathaway's character Kym, in the 2008 drama Rachel Getting Married.

His most notable television roles have been Enrico Ballati, "The Flying Man", on the television series Northern Exposure, and Mr. Noodle in the Elmo's World segment of the PBS children's show Sesame Street. He has also appeared on The Cosby Show, Saturday Night Live, CSI, 3rd Rock From The Sun, and Law & Order. Irwin was featured in the 1988 music video of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin (along with McFerrin and Robin Williams).

Irwin is currently playing the role of Mr. MacAffee in the Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie .

Awards and honors

Irwin was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer's Fellowship in 1981 and 1983. In 1984 he was named a Guggenheim Fellow and was the first performance artist to be awarded a 5-year MacArthur Fellowship.

For Largely New York he won a New York Drama Critics Circle Special Citation in 1988, and an Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award in 1989. This show also received five nominations for Tony Awards.

In 1992, he won an OBIE Award for his performance in Texts for Nothing. Together with David Shiner he won a special Tony Award for Live Theatrical Presentation in 1999 for their show Fool Moon. In 1993, this show already had won a Drama Desk Award for "Unique Theatrical Experience" and an Outer Critics Circle "Special Achievement" Award.

In 2005, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his appearance as George in the revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

2008 saw Irwin receive a CFCA Award nomination for "Best Supporting Actor" for his role in Rachel Getting Married.


  1. Bill Irwin Biography (1950-)
  2. DCI Cadets 1996 Olympics Performance

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