Van Fleet, Jo (1919–1996)

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Van Fleet, Jo (1919–1996)

American character actress who won both an Academy Award and a Tony Award. Born on December 30, 1919, in Oakland, California; died on June 8, 1996, in New York City; daughter of Roy H. Van Fleet and Elizabeth (Gardner) Van Fleet; College of the Pacific, in Stockton, California, B.A.; attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater; member of the Actors Studio; married William Bales (a dancer and choreographer who died in 1990); children: one son, Michael.

Selected theater:

debuted as Miss Phipps in a touring production of Uncle Harry (1945); debuted in NewYork as Dorcas in The Winter's Tale (Cort Theater, January 15, 1946); appeared as Major Orlov in The Whole World Over (Biltmore Theater, 1947), Connie in The Closing Door (Empire Theater, 1949), Regan in King Lear (National Theater, 1950), Miss Foster in Flight Into Egypt (Music Box Theater, 1952), Marguerite Gautier in Camino Real (National Theater, 1953), Jessie Mae Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (Henry Miller Theater, 1953), Eliza Grant in Look Homeward Angel (Ethel Barrymore Theater, 1957), Madame Rosepettle in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (Phoenix Theater, 1962), Amanda Wingfield in the 20th anniversary production of The Glass Menagerie (1965).

Selected filmography:

East of Eden (1955); The Rose Tattoo (1955); I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955); The King and Four Queens (1956); Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); La Diga sul Pacifico (This Angry Age or The Sea Wall, It.-Fr., 1958); Wild River (1950); Cool Hand Luke (1967); I Love You Alice B. Toklas! (1968); 80 Steps to Jonah (1969); The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1971); Le Locataire (The Tenant, Fr., 1976).

A veteran of stage, screen, and television, Jo Van Fleet was acclaimed for her portrayals of tough, complex women, many of them years older than she. She was born in 1919 in Oakland, California, and began her theater studies at the College of the Pacific. After receiving her degree, she studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner and at the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan, whom she later credited as a major influence in her career. She made her professional debut in 1945, in a touring production of Uncle Harry, and appeared in New York for the first time the following year, playing Dorcas in The Winter's Tale. In 1953, she won a Tony Award for her performance as Jessie Mae Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (1953), then two years later claimed an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as James Dean's mother in East of Eden (1955), her first film. Elia Kazan, the film's director, later cast her as the 80-year-old matriarch Ella Garth in his film Wild River (1960). He also directed her on stage, in George Tabori's Flight Into Egypt (1952) and Tennessee Williams' Camino Real (1953).

Any review of Van Fleet's career reveals a gallery of diverse maternal roles beyond those in East of Eden and Wild River. On stage, she was Eliza Grant in Look Homeward Angel (1957), Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (1959), and Madame Rosepettle in Arthur Kopit's absurdist comedy Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1962). In movies, she played the ambitious mother of Lillian Roth (portrayed by Susan Hayward ) in I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), for which she received the Motion Picture Exhibitors Award and the Film Daily Award, and Arletta, the ailing mother of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967). She was also the wicked stepmother in the television revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1965).

In addition to Broadway, films, and television, Van Fleet also played off-Broadway and in summer stock. In the summer of 1961, she performed at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The actress was married to dancer-choreographer William Bales, who died in 1990, and had one son, Michael. Van Fleet died in 1996, at the age of 81.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

McGill, Raymond, ed. Notable Names in the Theater. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

"Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. June 11, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts