Helen Hanft, Brassy Actress of Early Off Off-Broadway Scene, Dies at 79

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02 Jun 2013

Helen Hanft, a brassy performer who established herself as a regular presence on the small stages of the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s and '70s to such an extent that New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow called her the "Ethel Mermen of the Underground," died from intestinal complications May 30 at Roosevelt Hospital.

She was a favorite of playwright Tom Eyen, who cast her is several of the raunchy, comic satires he churned out regularly in the 1960s and 1970s. She enjoyed a signature success playing the title role in Eyen's Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down, which played four months at the Village Gate in 1974. Clive Barnes called the show "shabby, sleazy, but defiant," said of Hanft's Hannah movie-house ticket-taker, "[she] seems like a cruelly used sparrow nostalgic for better days." Bette Midler, who also acted in Eyen plays, has freely admitted to having borrowed extensively from the smart-talking dame persona created by Hanft.

Eyen (who went on to write the libretto to the musical Dreamgirls) used her again the next year in Women Behind Bars, a camp parody of prison exploitation films in the 1950s. The show quickly developed a cult following. In 1978, she acted in Eyen's quasi-sequel to Women Behind Bars, titled The Neon Woman. A murder mystery that starred the oversized drag artist Divine, it was staged in an Upper West Side discotheque.

She also played roles in David Rabe's In the Boom Boom Room at the Public Theater (1974), Edward M. Cohen's Cake With Wine at Playwrights Horizons (1975), John Patrick Shanley's Italian American Reconciliation (1988) at Manhattan Theatre Club, and Albert Innaurato's Gus and Al (1989) at Playwrights Horizons.

Film roles included small parts in Woody Allen's "Manhattan," "Stardust Memories" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Paul Mazursky's "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" and "Willie & Phil," "9 1/2 Weeks," "Moonstruck," "Arthur" and "Used People."



Helen Hanft was born April 4 in New York City. She studied at the Performing Arts High School.