Elizabeth Wilson, Versatile Veteran of Stage and Screen, Dies at 94

Obituaries   Elizabeth Wilson, Versatile Veteran of Stage and Screen, Dies at 94
 
Elizabeth Wilson, who distinguished herself many times on both stage and screen over a long, remarkably consistent and durable career, died May 9 at her home in New Haven, CT. She was 94.

As much as any actor of her generation, Ms. Wilson was the epitome of the redoubtable trouper: always working; good in almost any role; roundly respected by her peers; yet never rising to the level of star.

The highlights of her multi-decade career were many. She won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play, as well as an Obie Award, for her performance as Harriet, the mother of a wounded Vietnam veteran, in David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. "The acting is very good indeed," wrote Clive Barnes in the New York Times. "Elizabeth Wilson is the kind of a mother who should only have Andy Hardy as a son."

Elizabeth Wilson
Elizabeth Wilson

She received a Drama Desk for Outstanding Ensemble Performance in 1980 as a member of the large and seasoned cast (which also included Nancy Marchand, Maureen O’Sullivan and Teresa Wright) of Morning’s at Seven, a celebrated production which served to remind audiences of the existence of the now-classic 1938 play and its forgotten author, Paul Osborn. There were additional Drama Desk nominations for playing Mrs. Peachum in Richard Foreman’s famous rendering of Threepenny Opera in 1976 and Salonika in 1985.

Her film roles were usually smaller, but often memorable. In the workplace comedy "9 to 5," she was Roz Keith, the odious office snitch. And, in what was perhaps her best-known role, she was Mrs. Braddock, the dedicatedly chic and conventional suburban mother of Dustin Hoffman’s conflicted college grad Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate." The theatrical scream of supposed elation she emits upon finding out Benjamin wants to marry Elaine Robinson spoke volumes about the gap between the two characters. (The zebra-skin blouse she wore in the scene was equally unforgettable.) Mike Nichols, the director of that film, also cast her in "Catch-22," "The Day of the Dolphin" and "Regarding Henry."

By her own account, she had the career she wanted. "I had no desire to be a star and a star's responsibility," she told the Hartford Courant in 2014. "I wanted to be a character actress and be able to do all kinds of parts and work on a lot of things. That was my unconscious choice. I wanted to be an undercover actress.” She declined entreaties to change her rather-forgettable name as well, thus keeping her profile even more anonymous. She was born Elizabeth Welter Wilson on April 4, 1921, in Grand Rapids, MI, to Marie Ethel and Dunning Wilson. Her grandfather was wealthy, and she grew up in his mansion. She moved to New York in 1942 and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and studied under Sanford Meisner.

Ms. Wilson began her career well, appearing in the cast of the original Broadway stage production of William Inge’s Picnic. She repeated the part, Christine Schoenwalder, in the screen version. She then took a part in the popular romantic comedy The Desk Set in 1955. Her next assignment, in Joseph Field’s comedy The Tunnel of Love, was also a success. She was directed by John Gielgud in Hugh Wheeler’s Big Fish, Little Fish in 1961, and was used as a standby for Regina Hubbard in Mike Nichols’ 1967 Broadway mounting of The Little Foxes.

Nichols again employed her as a standby in the enormous hit staging of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, a comedy made up of three one-acts all set in the same hotel. She finally graduated to the original cast in a Mike Nichols show, playing Sonya, in the director's 1973 production of Uncle Vanya.

Her other Broadway roles during the 1970s included Sheep on the Runway, The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild and The Importance of Being Earnest (as Lady Bracknell) at Circle in the Square. She was Penelope Sycamore in the famous Ellis Raab production of You Can’t Take It With You in 1983, Lily Miller in a 1988 mounting of Ah, Wilderness!, Edna in the acclaimed 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and a member of the starry veteran cast of Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings in 1999.

Prior to "The Graduate," she had worked with then-unknown Dustin Hoffman in the Off-Broadway production of Henry Livings’ Eh?, in 1966. Two years later, she was in the cast of Little Murders, the dark comedy that kicked off Jules Feiffer’s career. She frequently worked at the New York Shakespeare Festival. In addition to Sticks and Bones, she was in All’s Well that Ends Well in Central Park, Taken in Marriage and Tongue of a Bird.

Ms. Wilson never married and leaves no immediate survivors. "I didn't want to give up my career," she explained to the Courant. "That's what kept me alive, kept me going. I couldn't stop — didn't want to stop — being all these different characters."

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