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Elaine Stritch, in 2009
February 2, 1925
Detroit, Michigan, USA
(m.1973-1982; his death)
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Elaine Stritch, in 2009
February 2, 1925
Detroit, Michigan, USA
(m.1973-1982; his death)
Elaine Stritch (born February 2, 1925) is an American actress and vocalist. She has appeared in numerous stage plays and musicals, feature films, and many television programs. She is known for her performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical Company, her 2001 one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, and recently for her role as Jack Donaghy's mother Colleen on NBC's 30 Rock. She has been nominated for the Tony Award five times in various categories. Stritch is also a three-time Emmy Award winner.
Elaine Stritch was born in 1925 in Detroit, Michigan, the youngest daughter of Mildred (née Jobe; 1893–1987), a homemaker, and George Joseph Stritch (1892–1987), an executive with B.F. Goodrich. Her family was wealthy and devoutly Roman Catholic. Stritch's father was of Irish descent and her mother was of Welsh descent. Samuel Cardinal Stritch, former Archbishop of Chicago, was one of her uncles.
Stritch made her stage debut in 1944. However, her Broadway debut was in Loco in 1946, directed by Jed Harris, followed soon after by Made in Heaven (as a replacement)  and then the revue Angel in the Wings (1947) in which she performed comedy sketches and the song "Civilization".
Stritch understudied Ethel Merman for Call Me Madam, and, at the same time, appeared in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, singing "Zip". Stritch later starred in the national tour of Call Me Madam, and appeared in a supporting role in the original Broadway production of William Inge's play Bus Stop. She was the lead in Goldilocks.
She starred in Noël Coward's Sail Away on Broadway in 1961. Stritch started in the show in a "relatively minor role and was only promoted over the title and given virtually all the best songs when it was reckoned that the leading lady ... although excellent, was rather too operatic for a musical comedy." During out-of-town tryouts in Boston, Coward was "unsure about the dramatic talents" of one of the leads, opera singer Jean Fenn. "They were, after all, engaged for their voices and...it is madness to expect two singers to play subtle 'Noel Coward' love scenes with the right values and sing at the same time." Joe Layton suggested "What would happen if ... we just eliminated [Fenn's] role and gave everything to Stritch? ... The show was very old-fashioned, and the thing that was working was Elaine Stritch ... every time she went on stage [she]was a sensation. The reconstructed 'Sail Away' ... opened in New York on 3 October.". In 1966, she played Ruth Sherwood in the musical Wonderful Town at New York's City Center, and appeared in an Off Broadway revival of Private Lives in 1968.
Stritch became known as a singer with a brassy, powerful voice, most notably originating on Broadway the role of Joanne in Company (1970). After over a decade of successful runs in shows in New York, Stritch moved in 1972 to London, where she starred in the West End production of Company.
Her earliest television appearances were in The Growing Paynes (1949) and the Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953–55). She also appeared on episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1954. She was the first and original Trixie Norton in the pilot for Honeymooners sketch with Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and Pert Kelton. The character was originally a burlesque dancer, but the role was rewritten and recast with Joyce Randolph playing the character as an ordinary housewife.
Stritch's other television credits, include a number of dramatic programs in the 1950s and 1960s, including Studio One. In the 1960 television season, Stritch appeared in the role of writer Ruth Sherwood in the CBS sitcom My Sister Eileen, opposite Shirley Bonne as her younger sister, Eileen Sherwood, an aspiring actress. The sisters, natives of Ohio, live in a brownstone apartment in Greenwich Village.
In 1975, Stritch starred in the British LWT comedy series Two's Company opposite Donald Sinden. She played Dorothy McNab, an American writer living in London who was famous for her lurid and sensationalist thriller novels. Sinden played Robert, her English butler, who disapproved of practically everything Dorothy did and the series derived its comedy from the inevitable culture clash between Robert's very British stiff-upper-lip attitude and Dorothy's devil-may-care New York view of life. Two's Company was exceptionally well-received in Britain and ran for four series until 1979. In 1979, both Stritch and Sinden were nominated for a BAFTA TV Award for Two's Company, in the category "Best Light Entertainment Performance", losing out to Ronnie Barker. Stritch and Sinden also sang the theme tune to the programme.
Other British television appearances included Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. Although she appeared several times in different roles, perhaps her most memorable appearance was in the story "William and Mary", in which she played the wife of a man who has cheated death by having his brain preserved. In his introduction to the episode, Dahl observed that humour should always be used in horror stories, in order to provide light to the shade, and that was why Stritch had been cast, as "an actress who knows a lot about humour". Stritch became a darling of the British chat show circuit, appearing with Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan many times, usually ending the appearance with a song. She appeared on BBC One's children's series, Jackanory, reading, among other stories, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
After returning to the U.S., she appeared on The Edge of Night as vinegary nanny Mrs. DeGroot, then was cast as a regular on the short-lived The Ellen Burstyn Show in 1986. She appeared as the stern schoolteacher Mrs. McGee on three episodes of The Cosby Show (1989–1990). She followed later with appearances on Law & Order (1992, 1997) as Lainie Steiglitz; as Judge Grace Lema on Oz (1998); and as Martha Albright (mother of Jane Curtin's character) on two episodes of 3rd Rock From the Sun (1997, 2001), alongside her Broadway co-star George Grizzard, who played George Albright (the names George and Martha were a play on the characters Stritch and Grizzard played in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf).
Stritch was reportedly considered for the role of Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls but, as she related in her show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, she "blew her audition". The role was subsequently cast with Bea Arthur (who had appeared with Stritch in 1956 in the television series Washington Square).
More recently, she was seen on One Life to Live (1993), replacing fellow stage legend Eileen Heckart as Wilma Bern. She has had recurring roles on Law & Order (1992, 1997) and 3rd Rock from the Sun (1997, 2001). On April 26, 2007, she began guest appearances on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock as Colleen, the fearsome mother of Alec Baldwin's lead character, Jack Donaghy. In 2008, Stritch appeared as herself in an episode during the second season of The Big Gay Sketch Show. She was spoofed during the first season as well as the second season.
While Stritch has made it clear she prefers working on the stage, she has in recent years appeared in more films than the early part of her career. In an interview in 1988, it was noted that "Making movies is challenging to Stritch since she considers herself a novice." She said: "I'm fascinated with it. And I want to do more of them." She was asked why she waited so long to make movies since she apparently enjoys it so much. "You do a movie for, like, three months and then you're finished. You do a part in a play and it's like going into a roomful of audiences for a year."
Early in her career, she appeared in Three Violent People (1956) starring Charlton Heston, as the hotel proprietor pal of Anne Baxter, and then co-starred opposite Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones in the David O. Selznick remake of A Farewell to Arms (1957) as Hudson's nurse. In The Perfect Furlough, she co-starred opposite Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. She had a showy role as the lesbian proprietor of a bar in the cult film Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965) which starred Sal Mineo. She played the role of the "tough-as-nails" nurse in the remake of The Spiral Staircase (1975) and was praised for her performance in the comedy-drama Providence (1977).
When she returned to the United States in the mid-1980s from London, Woody Allen cast her as the former movie star mother in his drama September (1987). People Magazine called her performance "acclaimed" and wrote "Though the movie has received mixed reviews, Stritch's roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator, can't be ignored." Allen later cast her in his comedy Small Time Crooks (2000) in which she played a "snobby socialite". Rex Reed wrote of her performance: "Elaine Stritch can still stop you in your tracks with a meaningless, drop-dead one-liner (which is all she gets here)."
She joined the ensemble of Cocoon: The Return (1988) as the earthy waitress who helps widowed Jack Gilford get over his wife's death. Among her co-stars were former Goldilocks co-star Don Ameche and Gwen Verdon. She appeared in Out to Sea (1997) as Dyan Cannon's wise-cracking mother and "danced up a storm" with the other characters. She played Winona Ryder's loving grandmother in the film Autumn in New York. Stritch had a rare co-starring role in the comedy Screwed (2000) playing the nasty Miss Crock who becomes the intended victim of a kidnapping by her disgruntled butler (Norm Macdonald).
In 1982, Stritch appeared on an edition of the long running BBC Radio comedy series Just a Minute alongside Kenneth Williams, Clement Freud and Barry Cryer. The show was described by long-time chairman Nicholas Parsons as being among the most memorable because of the way Stritch stretched the show's rules. It was on this occasion that Stritch famously described Kenneth Williams as being able to make "one word into a three-act play". She also appeared as Martha in a radio adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (she understudied Uta Hagen in the same role during the show's original Broadway run, performing during matinees before taking over the role entirely).
After John Bay's death from brain cancer in 1982, Stritch returned to America, and after a further lull in her career and struggles with alcoholism, Stritch began performing again in the 1990s. She appeared in a one-night only concert of Company in 1993 and as Parthy in a Broadway revival of the musical Show Boat in 1994. In 1996 she played Claire in a revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, with Variety writing: "Equally marvelous is Stritch, with a meatier role than her recent foray as Parthy in 'Show Boat.' To watch her succumb to the vast amounts of alcohol Claire ingests, folding and refolding her legs, slipping -- no, oozing -- onto the floor, her face crumpling like a paper bag, is to witness a different but equally winning kind of thespian expertise. It's a master class up there."
Her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a summation of her life and career, premiered at New York's Public Theater, running from November 7 to December 30, 2001. It then ran on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre from February 21 to May 27, 2002. Newsweek noted:
Now we see how At Liberty, the amazing one-woman show Stritch is moving to Broadway from the Public Theater this week, acquired the credit, "Constructed by John Lahr. Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch". "The reconstruction means I had the last say", she says. "Damn right I did." ... In case you didn't notice, Stritch is not the kind of woman who goes in for the sappy self-indulgence that pollutes most one-person shows. In fact, At Liberty is in a class by itself, a biting, hilarious and even touching tour-de-force tour of Stritch's career and life. Almost every nook and cranny of "At Liberty" holds a surprise. Turns out she dated Marlon Brando, Gig Young and Ben Gazzara, though she dropped Ben when Rock Hudson showed an interest in her. "And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be", she says. And then there were the shows. A British writer recently called Stritch "Broadway's last first lady", and when you see her performing her signature numbers from Company and Pal Joey and hear her tell tales of working with Merman, Coward, Gloria Swanson and the rest, it's hard to argue. Especially since she does it all dressed in a long white shirt and form-fitting black tights. It's both a metaphor for her soul-baring musical and a sartorial kiss-my-rear gesture to anyone who thinks there isn't some life left in the 76-year-old [sic] diva. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'Is this the last thing you're going to do?'", says Stritch. "In your dreams! I can't wait to get back into an Yves Saint Laurent costume that isn't mine—but will be when the show is over.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty played to British audiences in 2002–03. She reprised Elaine Stritch at Liberty at Hartford Stage in June 2008.
She appeared in the Broadway revival of the Sondheim-Wheeler musical A Little Night Music, from July 2010 to January 2011, succeeding Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt, the wheelchair-bound mother who remembers her life as a courtesan in the song "Liaisons". The AP reviewer of the musical (with the two new leads) wrote "Devotees of Stritch, who earned her Sondheim stripes singing, memorably, "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Company 40 years ago, will revel in how the actress, who earned a huge ovation before her very first line at a recent preview, brings her famously salty, acerbic style to the role of Madame Armfeldt." The theatre critic for The Toronto Star wrote:
"Stritch offers a sophisticated gloss on her by now patented, plain-talking woman who reveals all the home truths everyone ever wanted (or didn't) to hear about themselves. When Stritch tears into her big set-piece, 'Liaisons', about all the affairs in her life, it's not just a witty catalogue of indiscretions but a deeply moving fast-forward through a life filled equally with love, loss, joy and regret."
Stritch has been performing a cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City since 2005 (she is a resident of the Carlyle Hotel). Her first show at the Carlyle was titled "At Home at the Carlyle". The New York Times reviewer wrote
Amazingly, none of the 16 songs she performs have ever been in her repertory, and just as amazingly, you don't miss signature numbers... [L]etting them go has allowed her to venture into more sensitive emotional territory. Interpreting stark, talk-sing versions of Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me", "Fifty Percent" from the musical Ballroom, and Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's "That's Him", she comes into her own as a dramatic ballad singer.
Between musical numbers, Stritch told stories from the world of stage and screen, tales from her everyday life and personal glimpses of her private tragedies and triumphs. She most recently performed at the Cafe Carlyle in early 2010 and in fall 2011 in At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time.
Her late husband, John Bay, was part of the family that owns the Bay's English Muffins company, and Stritch sends English muffins as gifts to friends. Said John Kenley: "Every Christmas, she still sends me English muffins." When she was based in London, instead of renting or buying a property Stritch and her husband lived at the Savoy Hotel.
She is good friends with gossip columnist Liz Smith, with whom she shares a birthday (February 2). In March of 2013 Stritch announced she was leaving New York and relocating to Birmingham, Michigan.
Stritch has been candid about her struggles with alcohol. She took her first drink at 13 and began using it as a crutch before performances to vanquish her stage fright and insecurities. Her drinking worsened after Bay's death, and she sought help after experiencing issues with effects of alcoholism, as well as the onset of diabetes. Elaine Stritch at Liberty discusses the topic at length.
Stritch's voice and vocal delivery are spoofed in the Forbidden Broadway songs "The Ladies Who Screech" and "Stritch," parodies of "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Zip", songs she performed in the musicals Company and Pal Joey. In 2009, a parody by Bats Langley entitled "How the Stritch Stole Christmas" (loosely based on "How the Grinch Stole Christmas") appeared on YouTube. On The Big Gay Sketch Show, she was spoofed as a Wal-Mart greeter who's still a theater gal at heart. ("I'm heeere. I'm still heeeerrre." "Here's to the ladies who shop... at Wal-Mart!") This draws inspiration from footage of D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film, Company: Original Cast Album, in which she says "I'm just screaming", self-critiquing during recording "The Ladies Who Lunch". The sketch also spoofs Elaine Stritch Live at Liberty in which she refers to her feat, as a young stage actress and understudy for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, where she had to check in with Merman at half hour to curtain in New York, then commute to Connecticut for the out of town tryout of Pal Joey, and on some days make the round trip twice when there was a matinee and evening performance of both shows. In a subsequent episode of The Big Gay Sketch Show, Stritch is spoofed as an airport security guard, who's still "on" and isn't able to tone down her over-the-top antics. In yet another episode, "Stritch" is promoting her self-titled perfume, "Stritchy" in dramatic fashion when she's confronted by the real-life Elaine Stritch, who makes a cameo appearance.
Stritch has been nominated for the Tony Award five times.
In 2002, her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty won the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. In Elaine Stritch at Liberty she shared stories and songs from her life in theatre and observations on her experiences with alcoholism. The D.A. Pennebaker documentary of Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2004) combined rehearsal elements and her stage performance to win several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Achievement in a Variety or Music Program.
Stritch has earned seven Emmy nominations , winning three.