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Overview for Wendy Hiller
Wendy Hiller

Wendy Hiller



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Also Known As: Dame Wendy Hiller Died: May 14, 2003
Born: August 15, 1912 Cause of Death: undisclosed causes
Birth Place: Cheshire, England, GB Profession: Cast ... actor


Academy Award-winning Dame Wendy Hiller began her career with the Manchester Repertory Theatre at the age of 18 and, after leaving to tour the provinces for awhile, returned there to act in "Love on the Dole," adapted from the Walter Greenwood novel by her future husband Ronald Gow. A seven-month tour of Lancashire and Yorkshire preceded its successful 1935 London run, which brought her to the attention of playwright George Bernard Shaw who, noting something special in the actress, became her mentor and friend. Following her 1936 Broadway debut in "Love on the Dole" and with only six rehearsals for each show, Hiller portrayed both "Saint Joan" and Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion" at that year's Malvern Theatre Festival honoring Shaw's 80th birthday. Though a proposed movie version with her as "Saint Joan" never materialized, she did play (at Shaw's insistence) both Eliza in "Pygmalion" (1938) and the title role of "Major Barbara" (1941), delivering two unforgettable film performances forever linked to her name.

Possessing a beautiful speaking voice and a uniquely crisp brand of charm, Hiller showed an early preference for appearing plainly, forsaking make-up and fancy costumes to specialize in characters withered by frustration and emotional deprivation. She played "The Heiress" on Broadway in 1947, the dowdy role that would win Olivia de Havilland an Oscar two years later. Her own Oscar-winning supporting turn as a dejected, lonely woman in "Separate Tables" (1958) and an Oscar-nominated part as Sir Thomas More's alienated wife in "A Man For All Seasons" (1966) were also in this vein, as was her Gunhild Borkman in Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" on the London boards in 1975. Unlike her fellow 'dames' of the English stage, Hiller has essayed relatively few Shakespearean roles: the 1955-56 season with London's Old Vic Company under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, a tour of UK factory centers as Viola in "Twelfth Night" (1943), Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" (1946) and the Duchess of York in a TV presentation of "Richard II" (PBS, 1979).

At a glance there is very little to connect the young Hiller of "Love on the Dole" and the Shaw plays with the grande dame familiar to spectators of later years. She made an early transition to age and dignity, playing Queen Mary in Royce Ryton's "Crown Matrimonial" on the London stage in 1972, and has appeared frequently on the small screen, portraying such characters as Janet Mackenzie in "Witness for the Prosecution" (CBS, 1982), Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" (PBS, 1985) and Princess Victoria in "Lord Mountbatten: The Last Victory" (PBS, 1986). She was back on the London stage in 1988 in the title role of "Driving Miss Daisy" and several years later returned to Shaw, this time as Dame Laurentia McLachlan, his long-time friend and spiritual advisor, in "The Best of Friends" (PBS, 1992), co-starring John Gielgud (as Sir Sydney Cockerell) and Patrick McGoohan (as Shaw). For the young actress who had gone onstage at Malvern as Saint Joan after only six days' rehearsal in a vacant swimming bath under the author's watchful eye, the world had come full circle. The following year, she acted in "The Countess Alice" and "Ending Up," both airing on PBS.

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