The day after actor Phil Newby, 37, was found dead in his apartment last month, the victim of an apparent suicide, 200 company members and friends of Sacred Fools Theatre Company — where Newby performed the body of his work — gathered through the day, as though to a temple, to process their shock and grief. Such was the impact of the wildly popular performer, who, according to his father, Bruce Newby, had been battling depression since he was 8.
“Phil was an extraordinarily generous person,” said director Kiff Scholl. “Everyone loved him and knew of him unequivocally as a comic genius, onstage and off.”
Newby’s younger sister Emily (who avoided both the clinical depression and a degenerative muscular disease that afflicted Newby from his 20s), remembers hearing him imitating TV characters through their bedroom walls. He would repeat phrases, loudly, like he was rehearsing, until he got it just right. “And sometimes he would just laugh out loud as a funny idea crossed his mind.”
One such idea included dragging Emily to the local outdoor mall in their hometown of Santa Clara, where the 8- and 10-year-olds set up a psychiatry booth modeled on Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” comic, and Newby charged a quarter to give advice to adult passersby.
“And they paid, and played along,” Emily recalls. “He was fearless.”
Newby first came to Los Angeles 15 years ago. His acting teacher, Shari Carlson, remembers the slender young man, then in his early 20s, as “just brilliant, so funny, and undisciplined. He did eventually develop habits of discipline — that was a self-confidence issue.”
Daniel Postelwait, Newby’s best friend since the third grade, knows all about Newby’s self-confidence issue:
“I remember in high school, from the captain of the football team to any clique, and the theater group there, Phil would know somebody from it, and they adored him, everybody thought he was funny. While Phil felt he was trying to fit in, in reality, most people thought he was it, he was the coolest guy. I believe that he had a deficiency in terms of being able to accept all the love that was truly there.”
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Postelwait adds that Newby had been battling depression with various treatments and medications, the effects of which may have backfired. Newby visited Postelwait in Seattle the week before he died.
“There were subtle hints I should have noticed,” Postelwait says — when, for instance, Newby asked if his friend had ever attended a funeral. “As we parted, he gave me a hug, longer and closer than usual, and I welcomed it.
“He said that if nothing else, his life had value because of our friendship. I was very moved and told him I felt the same way. I told him how much he meant to me and that I loved him. And I didn’t realize that was the last conversation we were going to have. How many people do you get to have that final conversation with, and have that be exactly what you want to tell them?
For more testimony on Phil Newby by his friends, family and colleagues, and for information on a memorial service being planned for Berkeley, California, visit http://blogs.laweekly.com/ladaily/stage-news.