Jane Connell, Character Actress Known for Mame, Dies at 87

News   Jane Connell, Character Actress Known for Mame, Dies at 87
Jane Connell, a career character stage actress who, despite her diminutive stature, commanded many a musical comedy stage—most notably, through her portrayal of the daffy Agnes Gooch in the original stage production of Jerry Herman's Mame—died Sept. 22. She was 87.

Jane Connell in 1956
Jane Connell in 1956

Only four-foot-eleven, Ms. Connell was nonetheless a master of the large comic gesture. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre described her as "a tiny woman with a giant, squeaking voice." As the meek, frumpy Gooch in Mame, she was the mouse to Auntie Mame's lion, and the actress made the most of the comic difference between the characters. "Miss Connell…plays it better than it deserves," wrote Stanley Kauffmann in the New York Times, "with the caricature rather than character that it asks."

So identified with the role did she become that, for a time, she was often cast in similar parts. "In recent years, she hasn't appeared often enough on the New York stage," complained Mel Gussow in The New York Times in 1971, "and when she has, she has tended to be type-cast. Would she always play Agnes Gooch to someone else's Auntie Mame?" It was a production of She Stoops to Conquer Gussow was reviewing at the time, and the critic found Ms. Connell conquered the assignment. "She strides through this production with grace and confidence, never playing for laughs, but getting most of them."

Ms. Connell played Gooch again in a 1983 revival of the show, again opposite Angela Lansbury. She was also one of the few players from the original staging who reprised her part in the poorly received 1974 film version. (She replaced the fired Madeline Kahn.)

She enjoyed a stage comeback and won a Tony Award nomination in 1987 for her performance as the snooty Dutchess of Dene in Me and My Girl.

Jane Sperry Bennett was born in Berkeley, CA, on Oct. 27, 1927. She became Jane Connell when she married Gordon Connell, an actor and musician. She and her husband began their careers working at the famous San Francisco nightclubs The Purple Onion and The Hungry I. Upon moving to New York, Ms. Connell found work in the long-running revival of The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys. Not yet 30, she played the middle-aged Mrs. Peachum. She portrayed the hapless Princess Winnifred (the role that made Carol Burnett a star) in the London premiere of Once Upon a Mattress. She was part of the Leonard Stillman revue New Faces of 1956, alongside Maggie Smith and Virginia Martin, and in the short-lived musical Drat! The Cat!

While never an above-the-marquee star or household name, Ms. Connell was respected in theatre circles. The actress also knew where her talents lay early on. "I was always eccentric, never a conventional beauty," she told the Houston Chronicle in 2004. "I grew up in the Depression, the youngest of four kids. I wanted to make people laugh, because making my family laugh helped us forget our concerns. And I found that I could do it."

Following the success of Mame, Jerry Herman used her again in 1970's Dear World, a musical adaptation of The Madwoman of Chaillot. She found another champion in playwright Ken Ludwig. She starred in Ludwig's hit farce Lend Me a Tenor on Broadway in 1989. The writer was so impressed with her audition that he jumped over a row of seats to get the ear of the director, Jerry Zaks. She would return to work in Ludwig's less successful Moon Over Buffalo in 1995. In between, she was cast in director Mike Ockrent and choreographer Susan Stroman's revivifying treatment of the old Gershwin musical Crazy for You, which had a reworked book by Ludwig.

Off-Broadway credits included The Golden Apple, No Shoestrings, Put It in Writing, Drat!, The Rivals and the one-person show The Singular Dorothy Parker in 1985.

In 2001, after actress Kathleen Freeman died in the midst of the Broadway run of the musical The Full Monty, Jane Connell assumed her role of the salty, seen-it-all accompanist attempting to turn a group of blue-collar workers into credible male strippers.

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