Helen Stenborg, Broadway and Off-Broadway Actress, Dies at 86

Obituaries   Helen Stenborg, Broadway and Off-Broadway Actress, Dies at 86
Helen Stenborg, an Obie Award-winning stage and film actress and long-time spouse of the late Tony Award-winning actor Barnard Hughes, died on March 22 at her Manhattan apartment, her family announced. She was surrounded by her son Doug Hughes and daughter Laura Hughes. She was 86.

Helen Stenborg
Helen Stenborg Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Ms. Stenborg was born on Jan. 24, 1925, in Minneapolis, MN, the daughter of Ambrose Stenborg, a dentist and his wife, Ida. After completing high school early, at the age of 17, a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she moved to New York to begin her career as an actress.

During that time, she lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and studied with Miss Francis Robinson Duff, a respected acting teacher of the day.

As a teenager, she performed in the national tours of the comedies Three's a Family and Claudia. She was also a USO girl and performed for Allied troops in Italy and France.

She met her future husband, the late actor Barnard Hughes, while rehearsing a veteran's hospital show in 1946. In the 1950s, they performed together in The Tenthouse Theater, a stock company that divided its time between Chicago and Palm Springs, where the couple was married in April 1950.

Her last Broadway performance was in 2002 as Rebecca Nurse in The Crucible with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. In 1999 she performed on Broadway with her husband in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings in a production that starred Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris. She was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the pyromaniac Sarita Myrtle. She and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary onstage in the Coward play. They were honored with Drama Desk Awards for Lifetime Achievement in 2000. Other Broadway appearances include the Roundabout Theatre Company production of A Month in the Country (starring Helen Mirren) and Hugh Leonard's A Life. She toured with her husband in the national company of Leonard's Tony Award-winning Da, the play for which Hughes had won the 1978 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.

She was a long-time member of New York's Circle Repertory Company, appearing with William Hurt, Jeff Daniels, and Judd Hirsch in the original productions of Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, Fifth of July and Talley and Son, for which she was awarded the Obie for distinguished performance in 1986. Her questions to Wilson about the back story of her character Sally Talley during rehearsals for Fifth of July inspired Wilson to write Talley's Folly, his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about the character's courtship by accountant Matt Friedman.

For 16 summers, Ms. Stenborg was a devoted member of the acting company at The O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, CT.

Ms. Stenborg played E.M. Ashford, mentor to poetry scholar Vivian Bearing (played by Kathleen Chalfant) in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, Off-Broadway.

Her film work includes the leading role of an older woman befriended by a motorcycle gang in the Academy Award-winning short, "Her Mother Dreams," plus "On the Hook" with Frank Langella and Elliot Gould, "Three Days of the Condor," "Starting Over" with Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds, "Enchanted" and "Doubt." She worked extensively in television, including a long stint as an evil housekeeper on the soap opera "Another World."

In September 2010, at the age of 84, Ms. Stenborg appeared in Morris Panych's Vigil with Malcolm Gets at the DR 2 Theatre in Manhattan, winning The Richard Seff Award for the best performance by a veteran female character actress in a supporting role. At the awards ceremony, her son, Doug, the Tony Award-winning director of Doubt, noted that in her early days as a teenage actress in New York, Ms. Stenborg had probably had the shortest career as a waitress in the history of Schrafft's, being fired after less than a day. It was, he said, a great satisfaction to his mother that she had now managed to long outlast the restaurant chain.

She is survived by her son and his partner actress Kate Jennings Grant; her daughter, actress Laura Hughes and her partner, actor/director/producer John Gould Rubin; and her grandson Sam Hughes Rubin.

Funeral services will be held on April 4 at 10:30 AM at The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as The Little Church Around the Corner at 1 East 29th St. between Fifth and Madison. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made either to the Actors Fund or The Episcopal Actors' Guild.

Today’s Most Popular News: