clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Burl Ives, an Oscar-winning actor and singer whose gentle voice helped popularize American folk music, died of cancer Friday at his home in Anacortes, Wash., his longtime agent said.

Ives, 85, whose bear-like frame, bearded visage and smooth sound were familiar to millions around the world, had been in declining health since August, when he underwent back surgery and doctors discovered cancer of the mouth, said Marjorie Schicktanz Ashley, his agent for more than 20 years.Ives was best known for his popular renditions of classic American folk tunes and children's songs such as "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Down in the Valley" and for powerful dramatic roles in movies such as "The Big Country," for which he won an Acadamy Award for best supporting actor, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

He was also well-known to millions from years of work on television, including as the singer-narrator of the 1962 television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," still an annual staple of the Christmas season.

"He just had a voice that people loved," Ashley said.

Born Burle Ivanhoe in Hunt, Ill., Ives took to the road with his guitar in his youth and traveled widely, learning folk songs from hoboes and workers. Along with his contemporaries Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he helped popularize American folk music.

Poet Carl Sandburg once called Ives "The mightiest ballad singer of this or any other century."

In 1930 he dropped out of Eastern Illinois State Teacher's College and began a trek that took him to 46 states, Canada and Mexico, collecting folk songs from the miners, cowboys and fishermen he met. "My feet were itching," he wrote in his 1948 autobiography, "The Wayfaring Stranger." "I did all right in the beginning of college but . . . I grabbed my guitar and hit the road."