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Roger V. Burton, 90, retired UB professor who had many careers

Jan. 18, 1928 – Nov. 30, 2018

Roger V. Burton disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that there are no second acts in American lives.

He had at least four – jazz musician, psychological researcher, University at Buffalo professor and, in recent years, Hollywood actor.

He died Nov. 30 in his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 90.

Born into a musical family in Fresno, Calif., his father was a violinist and his mother was a singer who gave music lessons.

He began playing jazz trombone professionally with his older brother, Bill, a clarinetist, following the death of their mother when he was 11.

In high school, he took a bus regularly to Los Angeles to perform in the clubs on Central Avenue, the epicenter of the West Coast jazz scene. He was nicknamed “Schoolboy” for doing his homework while the bands in which he played were on their breaks.

He enrolled at the University of Southern California at 16 and worked his way through college playing jazz. He was a Laura Arkell Platt Scholar, earned a bachelor’s degree in music, then completed a master’s degree.

In the early 1950s, he performed with Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Johnny Ray, the Ink Spots and others. He was a regular on Ernst Gold studio recordings for films and Hoagy Carmichael’s variety show on NBC.

He switched to the bass and worked in smaller combos after getting informal lessons from another Central Avenue player, Charles Mingus, who had married one of his high school classmates.

Act two began when he was playing in Lake Tahoe and read in a magazine about a psychological study that claimed musicians were irresponsible.

“He was extremely responsible and that’s why it rubbed him the wrong way,” his daughter, Ursula, said.

He also knew something about psychology, having enjoyed a course on the subject at USC, and the letter he wrote disputing the article attracted attention at Harvard University, which invited him to do graduate work in psychology on a full scholarship.

After earning a doctorate in developmental psychology from Harvard, in 1959 he became a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., specializing in the development of morality. He did a year of research with renowned child development psychologist Jean Piaget in Switzerland.

In 1961, he met Gabrielle Baker, an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., who was the roommate of a woman he had been dating. Within a year, they were married.

By the time he joined the faculty at UB in 1974, the Burtons had five daughters and his wife was acclaimed as a feminist writer for her 1972 book, “I’m Running Away From Home but I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street: A Primer of Women’s Liberation.”

The Burtons toured as opening speakers for Gloria Steinem, talking about how they defined gender roles as parents and shared housework more equally.

At UB, he was director of the developmental program in the Department of Psychology and spoke at conferences around the world.

His research led to publications on the development of moral values in children and how boys and girls differ in their resistance to temptation. He devised a method of measuring eye movement to show how men and women view movies differently and tested youngsters in baby walkers to discover that the most modern walkers inhibited their motor skills.

He worked with psychologist Yoshimasa Nakasato in Japan on cross-cultural studies and helped start a psychology department at the University of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He retired in 1999.

Residents of Eggertsville, the Burtons took adventurous trips on shoestring budgets with their five children.

They bicycled and camped through Europe, hitchhiked across Alaska and camped along the trail taken by the ill-fated pioneers in the Donner Party, which provided the insights for his wife’s novel, “Searching for Tamsen Donner.”

His career as an actor began in the late 1990s when he took a sabbatical and joined his wife in Los Angeles, where she was attending the American Film Institute. His daughters, who had become filmmakers with their own company, Five Sisters Productions, introduced him to a friend who was directing a new film.

His biography on the Five Sisters Productions website notes that he “was quickly and delightfully surprised when he was ‘discovered’ at a Hollywood party for his remarkable, appealing face.”

His first film role was as a member of the board in the 1998 comedy “Chairman of the Board.” He appeared as himself in “Manna From Heaven,” which Five Sisters Productions filmed in Buffalo.

As a television actor, he had numerous roles. He played Philips on Fox’s “The Cool Kids” and Zach Galifianakis’ father-in-law on “Baskets.”

He also appeared on “Shameless,” “The Clapper,” “My Name is Earl,” “Fargo,” “Monk,” “House,” “American Idol,” “Good Morning America” and in skits on “The Tonight Show.”

“The first time he did a live show, ‘The George Lopez Show,’ we were kind of nervous for him,” his daughter Maria said, “but he was just wonderful. He said it was very much like playing in a band. He always felt comfortable. That’s why he did so well. He never got anxious or nervous.”

His last appearance is with “Frasier” actress Peri Gilpin in an as-yet-unreleased short film about age discrimination, “Old Guy.” Produced by his daughters’ film company, it was inspired by his observation that elderly actors often are left nameless in movie scripts, identified only as “old guy.”

His wife died in 2015.

Mr. Burton is pictured with his daughters, from left, Jennifer, Gabrielle, Ursula, Charity and Maria.

Survivors also include a sister, JoDe Kielhofer, and eight grandchildren.

Arrangements for memorial services are incomplete.

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