Susan Tyrrell, Eccentric Presence of Stage and Film, Dies at 67

By Robert Simonson
June 19, 2012

Susan Tyrrell, an actress whose willfully erratic career included an Oscar-nominated turn in the 1972 John Huston film "Fat City," died 2012. She was 67.



Susan Jillian Creamer was born into show business. He father was a top agent at the William Morris Agency. Loretta Young and Carole Lombard were among his clients. However, she later described her childhood in wealthy New Canaan, CT, as "miserable." Rebelling against her proper upbringing, and a prim, demanding, English mother, she got poor grades and was often kicked out of class. She cut off contact with her mother when she was a teenager.

Pulling some strings, her father got young Susan an ingenue part in a 1963 touring company of the gentle comedy Time Out For Ginger starring Art Carney. He then persuaded Look magazine to follow her as she traveled with the show. Her father died soon after from the effects of a bee sting.

Ms. Tyrrell made her Broadway debut in 1965 as a replacement performer in the hit comedy Cactus Flower. As a member of the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, she was in the ensemble of a 1968 production of King Lear starring Lee J. Cobb; the premiere of William Gibson's A Cry of Players; and revivals of The Time of Your Life and Camino Real. Even at that tender age, she had a lived-in face and a throaty, low voice, and was frequently cast as whores, lushes and sexpots.

Off-Broadway, she acted in the 1967 premiere of Lanford Wilson's The Rimers of Eldritch and a 1979 staging of Father's Day at American Place Theatre.

She made her film debut in 1971's "Shoot Out," a revenge drama starring Gregory Peck as a wronged bank robber. This was followed by "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me" and "The Steagle." She was only 26 when she auditioned for the part of Oma, the hard, boozing girlfriend of Tully (played by Stacy Keach), a boxer on his way down, in John Huston's "Fat City." She told Huston, "I know you think I'm too young for the part, but I don't think there's anything interesting about a 35-year-old barfly. What about a 25-year-old barfly? Why is she there?" Her performance was hailed as one of the great screen drunks of all time. (She admitted to already being well-acquainted with drugs and alcohol.) The film turned out to be a comeback movie for the then-flailing Huston, and Ms. Tyrrell received an Academy Award nomination for her work.

After "Fat City," Ms. Tyrrell rarely won parts as good. That's not to say, however, that her roles were uninteresting.

She played Solly, a hard-bitten, foul-mouthed lesbian, in both "Angel" (1984) and its sequel "Avenging Angel" (1985). She was a Mae West-like Emilia in "Catch My Soul," the film version of Jack Good's musical interpretation of Othello. Her performance in "Andy Warhol's Bad," as the dim-witted daughter-in-law of a beauty salon owner who employs female assassins on the side, won her a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress. Perhaps most infamously, she was the Queen of the Sixth Dimension in "Forbidden Zone," a 1982 musical comedy film based upon the stage performances of the pop group Oingo Boingo. The film was greeted with hostility, but became a cult hit.

She played the diminutive wife of circus master Kris Kristofferson in 1988's "Big Top Pee-Wee," and Ramona Rickettes, Johnny Depp's trampy grandma, in "Cry-Baby," John Waters' 1990 satire of 1950s teen drama. By then, Ms. Tyrrell fit in perfectly with Waters' grab-bag cast of pop-culture icons, which included Iggy Pop, Troy Donahue, Traci Lords and Polly Bergen.

In 2000, she had both of her legs amputated as a result of blood clots caused by essential thrombocythemia, a rare blood disease.

She continued to act after losing her legs. The change in her physical appearance did nothing to alter the sort of characters she played, which went by names such as High Priestess and Ella the Fortune Teller.

In the 1980s, she returned to the stage, appearing in small Los Angeles productions. She also performed her own one-woman show, entitled "My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta."

"I don't like ingenue people," she said in a 1972 interview in The New York Times. "And I don't like to see them in the movies. I like people with heart and soul, and character work is soul."