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Overview for Colleen Dewhurst
Colleen Dewhurst

Colleen Dewhurst



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Also Known As: Died: August 22, 1991
Born: June 3, 1924 Cause of Death: Cancer
Birth Place: Montreal, Quebec, CA Profession: Cast ... actor switchboard operator elevator operator gym teacher


A prominent figure in the defining post-World War II years of the American theatre, Colleen Dewhurst paid her dues in so many low-pay and no-pay New York productions that friends and colleagues began calling her "the Queen of off-Broadway." On the Great White Way by 1952, the 28-year-old Quebec-born actress was too old and tall to play ingénues but was given the chance to portray spirited Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew" in a 1956 stage production that established Dewhurst as an actress in-demand. Following her film debut in Fred Zinnemann's "The Nun's Story" (1959), she made infrequent movie appearances, preferring to stay close to the New York theatre and second husband George C. Scott. The celebrated couple were married and divorced twice between 1960 and 1972, during which time they were paired onstage and in episodic television and feature films. A more frequent film presence as she approached retirement age, Dewhurst brought a sobering intensity to diverse film roles in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977), Donald Wrye's "Ice Castles" (1978) and David Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone" (1983). She was a late-life hit with young viewers in the "Anne of Green Gables" (CBC, 1985) telefilm and its 1988 sequel "Anne of Avonlea." Never forsaking her roots on the stage, Dewhurst served as the president of Actor's Equity from 1985 until 1991, the year that cancer robbed the American stage and international cinema of a distinct and formidable talent.

Colleen Rose Dewhurst was born on June 3, 1924, in Montreal, Quebec. The only child of Fred and Frances Dewhurst, she spent her first two years chronically ill and was dragged by her mother to dozens of doctors, both accredited and dubious. The resulting emotional trauma drove Frances Dewhurst to embrace Christian Science and reject medicine entirely. Due to her father's difficulty with holding a job, the family migrated from Canada to Boston, MA, and then to an Irish enclave in suburban Dorchester. When Fred Dewhurst lost his position with the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the family moved yet again to New York, where he had found work with W.T. Grant & Company. Continued financial disappointments drove the Dewhursts to Whitefish Bay, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee. Between eighth and ninth grades, Dewhurst's parents divorced. Remaining in the custody of her mother, she endured subsequent moves to apartments in Shorewood and then Riverside, from whose high school she graduated in 1942.

Never able to call any one place home for any length of time, the young Colleen Dewhurst was an energetic but socially awkward teenager, more comfortable playing baseball and tackle football with boys than assimilating with girls. Compensating for her shyness by becoming class clown, Dewhurst was coaxed into a regional oratory competition by one of her teachers at Riverside High School and later was cast in a school production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Humiliated onstage by a wardrobe malfunction that drew guffaws from the audience, Dewhurst harbored no dreams of becoming an actress, preferring the notion of being an aviatrix. While a student at Milwaukee-Downer College, she accompanied a classmate on a weekend trip to Chicago, IL where she saw a try-out performance of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," prior to its 1945 Broadway premiere. The experience awakened in Dewhurst the desire to become an actress and led to her transfer to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Dewhurst married for the first time in 1947, to a fellow student at the American Academy. Living in a cold-water flat on West 50th Street, she made her Broadway debut in a small role in Harold Clurman's 1952 revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" at the American National Theatre and Academy. From this inauspicious beginning, Dewhurst would maintain a lifelong connection to the works of O'Neill. Producer Robert Whitehead was sufficiently impressed with her grace and beauty to include her in the touring company of his Broadway success "Mrs. McThing," starring Helen Hayes," and to offer her another ensemble role in Tyrone Guthrie's staging of "Tamburlaine, the Great" at the Winter Garden Theatre in January 1956. While studying with Clurman, Dewhurst was invited to join producer Joe Papp's start-up New York Shakespeare Festival, then being run from a Presbyterian church on East Sixth Street. Her fiery turn as Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew" drew rave reviews from important New York critics and helped put Papp's Public Theatre on the cultural map.

In 1956, Dewhurst's mother died of a heart ailment, a devastating blow for the young actress just as her career was beginning to build momentum. In 1958, while appearing in a revival of "Children of Darkness," directed by José Quintero at Circle in the Square, Dewhurst met actor George C. Scott, who would become her second husband in 1960. That same year, she was invited to perform O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" at the Spoleto Festival in Italy and to make her film debut, playing a schizophrenic asylum inmate, in Fred Zinnemann's "The Nun's Story" (1959) opposite Audrey Hepburn. Through the next decade, Dewhurst returned to Broadway half a dozen times and was nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award for her star turn in Edward Albee's "The Ballad of the Sad Café," which enjoyed a four-month run at the Martin Beck Theatre. She also began appearing on live television on such anthology series as "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958), "Kraft Theatre" (ABC, 1947-1958) and "The DuPont Show of the Month" (CBS, 1957-1961), on which she played the strumpet Aldonza to Lee J. Cobb's Man of La Mancha.

Concentrating on stage work, Dewhurst made few film appearances during this time. She played a Communist spy in Andre de Toth's fact-based espionage thriller "Man on a String" (1960), starring Ernest Borgnine, and was a steely sanitarium physician seduced by institutionalized poet Sean Connery in Irvin Kershner's "A Fine Madness" (1966). She received a 1961 Tony Award for her role in "All the Way Home," directed by Arthur Penn at the Belasco Theatre. The Pulitzer Prize-winning production was both a critical and commercial success and marked, in her estimation, the true beginning of Dewhurst's Broadway career. Dewhurst and George C. Scott were married and divorced twice between 1960 and 1972. They appeared together in a March 1964 episode of Scott's short-lived TV series "East Side/West Side" (CBS, 1963-64), in a CBS production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in 1967, and a TV production of Miller's "The Price" broadcast on "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" (CBS, 1951- ) in 1972. Dewhurst contributed a small role as a prostitute to Richard Fleischer's "The Last Run" (1971), which paired Scott in a starring role opposite his future wife, Trish Van Devere.

The dissolution of her marriage to George C. Scott and the maturation of her children to their adolescent and teenage years allowed Dewhurst to accept film roles farther away from her New York home. She played a frontier madam in "The Cowboys" (1972), directed by old friend Mark Rydell and featuring John Wayne. She supported Wayne once more, again as a prostitute, in the cop thriller "McQ" (1974). That same year she starred in José Quintero's acclaimed Broadway revival of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," co-starring Jason Robards. Running for more than 300 performances at the Morosco Theatre, the production netted the 49-year-old Dewhurst a Tony Award for Best Actress. She contributed an icy cameo to Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977), as the WASP mother of Diane Keaton's title character, and played an ice rink owner who helps blind skater Lynn-Holly Johnson pull out of a post-traumatic slump in the tearjerker "Ice Castles" (1978). In Fred Walton's "When a Stranger Calls" (1979), she had a rare lead film role as a Los Angeles barfly who attracts the unwanted attention of a serial killer. In 1981, Dewhurst was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Between 1985 and 1991, she also served as the President of Actor's Equity.

Following her divorce from George C. Scott, Dewhurst entered into a long-term relationship with Broadway producer Ken Marsolais. The pair maintained a second home in Canada, where Dewhurst performed in a number of feature films and television miniseries. She was memorable in a brief turn as the lethally protective mother of a serial killer in David Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone" (1983), but won the hearts of younger viewers as the flinty but nurturing Marilla Cuthbert in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "Anne of Green Gables" (1985) and its sequel "Anne of Avonlea" (1987). The telefilms were a popular sensation in Canada, emptying the streets on the nights of their network premieres. Dewhurst would be paired once more with young co-star Megan Follows in "Termini Station" (1989) and reprised the role of Marilla Cuthbert in three episodes of the long-running CBC series "The Road to Avonlea" (1989-1996). She contributed vocal work to "The Exorcist III" (1990), which starred ex, George C. Scott, and appeared as Candice Bergman's acerbic mother in four episodes of the popular CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown" (1988-1998).

In 1989, Dewhurst was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Friends close to the actress would later maintain that Dewhurst's refusal to undergo invasive surgery to remove the cancer had as much to do with her innate modesty as with her deeply-felt belief in the healing powers of Christian Science. One of her last film roles was opposite son Campbell Scott, cast by director Joel Schumacher as a terminally ill leukemia patient who romances caretaker Julia Roberts in "Dying Young" (1991). Dressed in cowboy denims and a weather-beaten Stetson, Dewhurst contributed the supporting role of a Mendocino local who looks after the unlikely couple as they undertake a road trip toward denial. Dewhurst succumbed to her cancer two months after the film's June opening, dying at her Salem, NY home on Aug. 22, 1991. A month later, George C. Scott dedicated his revival of the Paul Osborn play "On Borrowed Time" at Circle in the Square to her memory. Filled out with the reminiscences of friends and colleagues, Dewhurst's incomplete autobiography was published in 1999.

By Richard Harland Smith

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