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Eric James Nuetzel, M.D.: Psychiatrist With An Actor’s Heart

Eric Nuetzel
Courtesy, St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute

Eric Nuetzel, M.D., didn’t merely enjoy good stage and screen performances, he dissected them. He plumbed the depths of such Shakespearean classics as Othello and Macbeth, as well as timeless movies like It’s A Wonderful Life and Raging Bull, to find their meaning and relevance to the human condition.

Dr. Nuetzel, who eagerly shared his astute analyses with audiences and students, taught simultaneously in the Department of Psychiatry and the Performing Arts Department at Washington University.

Before becoming a doctor, he had considered a career as an actor. He would later settle for acting part-time.

“I think he could have done it professionally had he chosen to,” said Henry Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University, “but he was more interested in acting as a means to a deeper end.

“The theater for Eric was a kind of mirror of the human mind,” Schvey added. “He was scientific on one hand and extremely literary on the other.”

Dr. Nuetzel, whose roles in life were a perfect symmetry of therapist, scholar and actor, died of complications from lung cancer on Monday (May 12) at his home in Creve Coeur. He was 63.

A memorial will be Friday at Berger Memorial Chapel in Olivette.

Two sides of a coin

Dr. Nuetzel graduated from Saint Louis University School of Medicine in 1976. In 1980, after completing his residency in psychiatry at New York State Psychiatric Institute-Presbyterian Hospital, he returned to SLU as an instructor in psychiatry. In 1982, he established a private practice.

“Eric was a great therapist with a booming practice,” said Roddy Roediger, Dr. Nuetzel’s longtime friend and a Washington University psychology professor. “Everyone who knew him could see why. He cared deeply. His voice was resonant, his eyes twinkled, and when he spoke to you he gave you his full attention.”

From 1980 to 1988, he participated in St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute’s training program; and in 1988, he joined the institute’s faculty.

Three years later, he returned to his first love: the theater. He had taught and practiced psychiatry for 15 years when he entered a Washington University master’s program with what he called “a very specific agenda: to study live drama from a psychoanalytic perspective.” 

While working on his master’s degree, which he received in 1995, Dr. Nuetzel joined the school’s clinical psychiatry faculty and later taught psychology there.

He began acting while pursuing his degree.  In the spring of 1991, he appeared as the Duke of Venice in a Wash U production of Othello. In the spring of 1992, he was assistant director for a university production of Tartuffe. That fall, he directed the one-act play, Hopscotch.

In 1993, he landed the role of Father Dewis, whom he described as a “hapless, ineffectual Episcopal priest” at the center of Sam Shephard’s drama about infanticide, Buried Child.

The director said his performance was flirting with caricature. Dr. Nuetzel felt the same humiliation as his character, but he had something Dewis did not: analytical training. He realized the part hit too close to home; it reminded him of a clinical brush with infanticide that occurred early in his career as a psychiatrist.

He wondered if he could as easily identify the causes for incongruity by other actors – and possibly offer help. He soon got a chance to find out when Edison Theater produced Richard Selzer’s dark drama about a terminally ill woman, The Black Swan, in 1994. He signed on as assistant director; Schvey was the director.

For Swan and other productions, Schvey said Dr. Nuetzel proved immensely helpful.

“What I took to be obstructiveness, Eric showed me it was what the actor needed to do for the role,” Schvey said.

Upon graduation, he became a professor of drama at the school. He will be long remembered by some of his former drama students such as Barry Levy, a screenwriter best known for the 2008 film Vantage Point.

In last month’s Hollywood Journal, Levy wrote: “When I pitch new TV shows or movies, I know I am a great pitcher — because of Eric. Because of what I learned from him about focus. When I try to find what motivates my characters and how I can express this — I know it is because of lessons Eric taught me about character motivation and expression.”

For Dr. Nuetzel, acting and psychoanalysis were merely two sides of a single coin.

An inspiring legacy

Dr. Nuetzel’s acting career ended, but he continued to critique productions and help directors and actors for the remainder of his life, as he also continued to counsel and teach.

“For Eric's many friends and colleagues at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, his untimely death leaves a painful void but also an inspiring legacy,” said Stuart Ozar, M.D., president of the institute. “He led us with wisdom, integrity and conviction.”

Ozar said Dr. Nuetzel’s love of psychoanalysis fueled countless research initiatives at the local and national level. Many of those initiatives centered on research done in partnership with Randall Larsen, chair of Washington University’s Department of Psychology. They teamed up on several studies of therapeutic relationships.

During the 2000s, he served as secretary and then chair of the Board on Professional Standards for the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City. He received the Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 2010.

His was a valued voice for review of national and local theater. Media also sought him out on more serious matters, such as the effect of 9-11 on children.

"They've lost their virginity," Dr. Nuetzel told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We need to help them manage their anxiety and doing active things helps. It teaches them to learn mastery of a trauma."

Dr. Nuetzel wrote and edited numerous publications. He served on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. He was a much sought-after speaker for film, theater, performance and psychoanalysis.

“He was eminent in his field,” Roediger said simply.

'Deeds, not creeds'

Eric James Nuetzel was born in Belleville, Ill., on Aug. 16, 1950, and grew up in St. Louis. He was the third of Sally Bowman Nuetzel and John Arlington Nuetzel’s six children. His father, who died several years ago, was a former child actor and singer, as well as a cardiologist and former medical director at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center.

A son, Arlington Nuetzel, said his father described his childhood as similar to growing up in the famed von Trapp musical family, on whom The Sound of Music is based.

“He said there was always music in the household, always discipline in the household,” his son said. “They all grew up to perform one way or another.” 

After graduating from Ladue Horton Watkins High School in 1968, he earned a degree in anthropology in 1972 from the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he acted and directed numerous plays.

He met Susan Miller while attending medical school; she was a student at Washington University School of Law. They were married on Aug. 22, 1976. 

“My father will be remembered for all the people that he helped – his patients, his family – he liked helping people,” his son said. “He wasn’t very religious, but he believed that good deeds made a man and that’s what he lived by: deeds, not creeds.”

In addition to his wife, Susan Miller Nuetzel of St. Louis, his survivors include his mother, Sally Bowman Nuetzel of St. Louis, his son, J. Arlington (Tawny Lane) Nuetzel and his daughter, Leah Elizabeth Nuetzel, both of Chicago. He is also survived by his siblings, John (Georgia) Arlington Nuetzel II of Gosnell, Ark., and Vicky (David) Holton, Suzi (Jeff) Wells, Phil (Cindy) Nuetzel and Tina (Patrick), McNulty all of St. Louis.

A memorial service for Dr. Nuetzel will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Berger Memorial Chapel, 9430 Olive Blvd., in Olivette.

Memorials in lieu of flowers would be appreciated to the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute Eric J. Nuetzel, M.D. Fund, the Lung Cancer Research Foundation or a charity of the donor’s choice.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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