Eileen Heckart, the Tony Award-honored actress whose stage farewell at age 81 in 2000 was as an ailing grandmother in The Waverly Gallery, Off-Broadway, died Dec. 31 after a battle with cancer, according to family and colleagues.
Ms. Heckart, the whiskey-voiced character woman remembered for playing Mrs. Daigle, the shattered mother of a murdered child in The Bad Seed on Broadway and on film (she was Oscar-nominated for it), was 82 and died in Connecticut. She leaves behind scores of film, TV and stage roles, including the steely mother of a blind man in the film, "Butterflies Are Free." She received a special Tony Award in 2000 for her career. Her work in the film version of the play, The Bad Seed, about a murderous little girl in pigtails, includes one of the most explicit scenes of human grief captured on celluloid. Ms. Heckart was not afraid to be a sloppy, wildly anguished creature in the picture, and she was praised for it.
The veteran actress made it clear in 2000 that Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery, in which she starred at the Promenade Theatre March 3-May 21 (following a run in summer 1999 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival), would be her final stage appearance. The theatre community, in reaction to both this announcement and the quality of her performance, handed her almost every conceivable honor for the role: a Drama League Award, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and the Lucille Lortel Award.
Son Luke Yankee told Playbill On-Line her favorite credits were were Mother Courage, which she performed at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton in 1974, the TV production of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds" on PBS in 1967 (which she later perfomed on stage in Boston) and the TV film, "Save a Place for Me at Forest Lawn," for which she and Maureen Stapleton both won Emmys.
"She was incredibly proud of The Waverly Gallery," Luke Yankee said. "To have that sort of success at age 81 and to win every major award in town was a crowning achievement." Yankee added, "While she was best known for her film and TV work, she was a queen on Broadway in the 60s and 70s — and that was always where her heart was. I had the great good fortune to direct her in Driving Miss Daisy at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1990. As always, Miss Heckart was very demading of her director!"
Ms. Heckart began her stage career at New York's Blackfriars Guild in 1943, in a play called Tinker's Dam. Broadway soon followed, with a string of roles in important and/or successfuls play, including William Inge's Picnic in 1953; The Bad Seed in 1954; Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays in 1955; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 1957 (critic Kenneth Tynan, seeing this, called Heckart "the best thin actress alive"); and Arthur Laurents' Invitation to a March in 1960. She toured in Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo in 1964.
Heckart received Tony nominations for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Invitation to a March and Butterflies Are Free. She won an Oscar for the 1973 film version of the latter, and claimed an Emmy Award for her performance in "Save Me a Place at Forest Lawn" in 1967. A recent credit was Terrence McNally and Jon Robin Baitz's House at the Bay Street Theatre.
Other stage credits include The Cemetery Club, Ladies at the Alamo, Veronica's Room, The Mother Lover, Everybody Loves Opal, Too True to Be Good, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, and the John Kander musical, A Family Affair.
On television, she would become widely known as Mary Richards' outspoken, ace-reporter Aunt Flo on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the menacing Mother Buchanan on "The Five Mrs. Buchanans." Her films include "Up the Down Staircase," "Bus Stop," "Miracle in the Rain" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me," among others.
Ms. Heckart was born Anna Eileen Heckart March 29, 1919, in Columbus, OH, and studied theatre at Ohio State University. She married John Harrison Yankee, an insurance broker, and the couple had three sons: Mark Yankee, a wine merchant of Norwalk, CT; Philip Yankee, a stage manager of Stratford, CT; and Luke Yankee, a director and producer of Los Angeles, who all survive her. John Yankee died in 1996. They were married 53 years. Her grandchildren also survive her.
Her 2000 Playbill bio read as follows: "Eileen Heckart has three sons and two granddaughters. She also has an Oscar, two Emmys, a Hollywood Golden Globe, a New York Drama Critics Award, four Tony nominations, three Honorary Doctorates, and has been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame."
The funeral will be held at the Benedictine Grange in Redding, CT, within the next week. A New York memorial is expected.