Dame Wendy Hiller, a Favorite of Shaw's Who Played London, Bway and Films, Dead at 90

Obituaries   Dame Wendy Hiller, a Favorite of Shaw's Who Played London, Bway and Films, Dead at 90 Wendy Hiller, the British actress who brought Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle and Barbara Undershaft to life in film versions of Pygmalion and Major Barbara during Shaw's lifetime, died May 14 at the age of 90.
Basil Rathbone and Wendy Hiller in the 1947 Jed Harris production of The Heiress.
Basil Rathbone and Wendy Hiller in the 1947 Jed Harris production of The Heiress.

In a long career that included new works and classics, Dame Wendy Hiller played theatres in the West End and on Broadway, and appeared in a number of popular and critically-acclaimed films. She won the Academy Award in 1958 for playing Miss Cooper in "Separate Tables." In 1957, she was Tony Award-nominated on Broadway for her work as blowsy Josie Hogan in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Her films include "Toys in the Attic" (1964), "Sons and Lovers" (1960), "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974), "The Elephant Man" (1980), "Making Love" (1982), among others. Gabriel Pascal directed her in the film "Major Barbara" in 1941 and she had a fine screenwriter for 1938's Pascal-produced "Pygmalion" — Shaw himself got the credit. The movie's ending differs from the play, and would later be borrowed for My Fair Lady.

An obituary of Ms. Hiller in The Times of London points out that "she had an inimitable voice, something between a quaver and a slight stammer," and she was not a conventional beauty. Indeed, in the movie of Pygmalion she seems much older than the young Eliza should be.

Ms. Hiller was born in Bramhall, Cheshire, England, the daughter of a cotton mill director. She studied acting at the Manchester Repertory Theatre (her debut was as The Maid in an MRT production of The Ware Case). Her London debut was as Sally Hardcastle in Love on the Dole, in 1935, and she played the part on Broadway in 1936.

According to The Times of London, Love on the Dole was seen by Shaw who was so impressed he asked Hiller to play Saint Joan and Eliza Doolittle at the Malvern Festival in 1936. Shaw also championed her for casting in the two Gabriel Pascal-produced Shaw films. On Broadway, she played Catherine Sloper in The Heiress in 1947 and succeeded Peggy Ashcroft in the later London run of the same play. Producer and director Jed Harris pursued Ms. Miller for the role of the unloved American daughter of a stern doctor and did not relent until she agreed to play it. The play would be her greatest Broadway success.

In 1937, she married playwright Ronald Gow, who adapted and wrote plays for her (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, from the Hardy novel, among others). He died in 1993 and two children survive them.

As late as the 1980s, she appeared on stage in Gow's last play, The Old Jest (1980) and as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1981 at Watford and 1987 at the Royalty). She played Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy at the Apollo in London in 1988.

She was appointed OBE in 1971 and DBE in 1975.