Dewhurst, Colleen

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Dewhurst, Colleen

(b. 3 June 1924 in Montreal, Canada; d. 22 August 1991 in South Salem, New York), one of America’s foremost actresses, best remembered for her roles in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, which highlighted a career on stage, screen, and television that spanned forty years and earned her two Tony Awards and four Emmys.

Dewhurst was the only child of Fred Dewhurst, a professional football and hockey player, and Frances, his petite and beautiful wife who, descended from a line of Ulster Irish, was devoted to her daughter and to her Christian Science religion. Dewhurst recalled her childhood as particularly happy, although the family moved to Boston, New York, Milwaukee, and several other cities and states when she was young. Her father brought her up as an athlete, and she described herself as the definitive tomboy. A series of surgeries for tuberculin glands of the neck left her with visible scars and the throaty voice quality for which she is remembered. Her parents divorced when she was twelve years old.

In 1943 Dewhurst graduated from Milwaukee’s Riverside High School, the fifteenth school she had attended since the family’s move from Montreal. She played Olivia in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in her senior year. While attending Milwaukee Downer College for Women in 1944, she wrote, cast, and acted in a dramatic skit that won first prize for the freshman class. That same year her mother surprised her with tickets to two plays in Chicago. One was Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Laurette Taylor. Thoroughly impressed by the theatrical experience, she dropped out of school in 1945, abandoning plans to be an aviator, and worked as a dental receptionist in Gary, Indiana, before enrolling in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1946.

After graduating from the academy in 1948, Dewhurst continued her studies with Joseph Kramm and Joseph Anthony of the American Theatre Wing, playing summer stock for the first ten years of her career. While studying with Harold Clurman in 1952, she made her Broadway debut in a small role in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. Two years later Joseph Papp invited her to join his newly organized Shakespeare Workshop. After participating in a reading, Evening with Shakespeare and Marlowe (1954), she became a New York Shakespeare Festival regular. Her first Obie was awarded to her for her role as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (1956). Later in 1956 she played Tamora in Titus Andronicus; in 1957, again under Papp’s aegis, she played Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. In 1959 she performed opposite George C. Scott in Antony and Cleopatra.

Dewhurst’s first appearance with Scott was in Edwin Justus Mayer’s Children of Darkness at the Circle in the Square (1958) in Greenwich Village. The production was directed by José Quintero, who was to become her director in many O’Neill roles, including Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1958) at the Spoleto Festival in Italy; Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms (1963) at the Circle in the Square, which brought a second Obie; Sara in More Stately Mansions (1967) on Broadway; Josie inA Moon for the Misbegotten (1973) on Broadway, for which she received her second Tony Award (she received her first Tony Award in 1960 for her portrayal of Mary Follet in Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home), and, in two 1988 Broadway revivals, Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night and Essie Miller in Ah, Wilderness! Theodore Mann directed her performance as Christine Mannon in the revival of Mourning Becomes Electra (1972) at the Circle in the Square. In 1987 she played Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, the playwright’s wife, in My Gene, a one-woman show at the New York Shakespeare Public Theatre.

Dewhurst is best remembered for the earthy quality and the absolute truth and passion that she brought to the roles of O’Neill’s women. She also, however, brought an equal understanding and intuitive response to those of Edward Albee in her interpretation of Amelia in Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1964), the Mistress in All Over (1971), and Martha in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1976).

Dewhurst was also a prolific presence in television and film. She appeared with Candice Bergen on the Murphy Brown CBS comedy series for three seasons as Murphy’s mother, winning an Emmy Award in 1989 and another in 1991, three days after her death. She also won Emmys for her portrayal of Barbara Petherton in the miniseries Between Two Women (1986) and for her performance as Margaret Page in the made-for-television movie Those She Left Behind (1989). Of her many films, she played the Archangel in The Nun’s Story (1959); a psychiatrist in A Fine Madness (1966); a madam in The Cowboys (1972); a bar waitress in McQ (1974), with John Wayne; Mom Hall in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977); the owner-coach-adviser of an ice-skating rink in Ice Castles (1978); a physician in Tribute (1980), with Jack Lemmon; and a wise old widow in Dying Young (1991), with Julia Roberts and Dewhurst’s son, the actor Campbell Scott. While she performed in television and film for the money, her heart belonged to the theater. She was the president of Actors’ Equity for two terms from 1985 to 1991 and worked in conjunction with Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares.

Her first marriage in 1947 to James Vickery, a fellow American Academy student actor, ended in divorce after twelve years. Her second marriage was in 1960 to the actor George C. Scott, with whom she had two children. The couple divorced, remarried in 1967, and then divorced a second time in 1972.

An imposing figure both on and offstage, Dewhurst has been described as a striking woman whose face and figure exuded power and femininity. She is remembered for her regal stature (she was five feet, eight inches tall and big-boned), her mature sexuality, her folksy earthiness, and her quick wit. With her companion, the Broadway producer Ken Marsolais, Dewhurst lived on a farm in suburban South Salem in Westchester County, New York, for her last sixteen years. She loved her thirty-five-room farmhouse in South Salem, which was home to eight cats, two dogs, a goat, a parrot, a housekeeper, and a multitude of guests. She summered at her home on Prince Edward Island, Canada. When diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1989, she refused medical intervention due to her Christian Science upbringing. She died at home on her farm at the age of sixty-seven.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York City, contains uncatalogued newspaper clippings and magazine articles about Dewhurst and her productions. Colleen Dewhurst: Her Autobiography (1997), written with and completed by Tom Viola, fills in the narrative with interviews of those who knew her best: Edward Albee, Jason Robards, José Quintero, Zoe Caldwell, Maureen Stapleton, and her children, to name a few. Barbara Lee Horn, Colleen Dewhurst: A Bio-Bibliography (1993), compiles journalistic literature and includes an extensive section with data on her major roles in all media, including credits, runs, synopses, and review citations. Obituaries are in the New York Times (24 Aug. 1991) and Variety (26 Aug. 1991).

Barbara Lee Horn