Suzanne Pleshette, Stage and Television Actress, Dies at 70

Obituaries   Suzanne Pleshette, Stage and Television Actress, Dies at 70
Suzanne Pleshette, whose stage, film and television career reached its peak in the 1970s when she starred in "The Bob Newhart Show" as Newhart's intelligent, tart-tongued wife Emily, died Jan. 19 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 70.
Suzanne Pleshette
Suzanne Pleshette

From 1972 to 1978, Ms. Pleshette played a marital partner who was the equal of Newhart's psychologist Bob Hartley in every respect, including laugh lines. Her sexy, sophisticated, whiskey voice made Emily a perfect foil to the comedian's balding, hesitant, stammering spouse. The actress' portrayal marked a decided break from the television wives played by the likes of Donna Reed and Barbara Billingsley in the '50s and '60s. Ms. Pleshette was twice nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on the sitcom.

Suzanne Pleshette was born Jan. 31, 1937, in Brooklyn Heights, to Eugene and Gloria Pleshette. Her father managed the Paramount and Brooklyn Paramount theaters, and her mother was a former dancer. She claimed to have possessed her trademark husky voice as early as the age of four; callers would mistake her for her father when she answered the phone. She aimed toward a career in the arts early on, attending the New York High School of Performing Arts, then Syracuse University and Finch College, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She took acting lessons at Stanford Meisner's Acting School.

She made her Broadway debut in 1957 in Compulsion, a drama about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, which starred Roddy McDowell and Dean Stockwell. She followed that up with a 1959 S.N. Behrman play called The Cold Wind and the Warm, directed by Harold Clurman. It ran for four months.

After another brief run in an Abe Burrows-directed play called Golden Fleecing, she achieved a breakthrough, replacing Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan in William Gibson's Helen Keller drama, The Miracle Worker. She received good reviews and later toured with the show.

By the late '50s, Ms. Pleshette had a busy, if not particularly A-list, film career. She was in the Jerry Lewis comedy "The Geisha Boy," and appeared in two films with teen idol Troy Donahue, "Rome Adventure" and "A Distant Trumpet." She later married the actor, though the marriage lasted only eight months, with Ms. Pleshette complaining of mental cruelty. She also appeared in countless television series. (One of her most memorable series was the one that never was: She was the first choice to play Catwoman in the 1960s series "Batman.") The best film role of her career came in 1963, when Alfred Hitchcock cast her as Tippi Hedren's competition for Rod Taylor's affections in the thriller classic "The Birds." In the role, Ms. Pleshette exuded her usual warmth and common sense, even in the face of an onslaught of murderous birds. Her most significant late-career role was as hotelier Leona Helmsley in the 1990 television movie "The Queen of Mean." The part won her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. In recent years, she returned in force to television as a kind of elder master of the form, playing salty characters in "Will & Grace," "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "Good Morning, Miami."

Aside from Mr. Donahue, she was married two other times. A union with Texas oilman Tom Gallagher lasted from 1968 until his death in 2000. In 2001, she married her sometime "Bob Newhart" co-star, Tom Poston. The two had met on Golden Fleecing and had a brief fling. He died in 2007.

Late in life, Ms. Pleshette suggested that her long career was due to a work ethic and a lack of vanity. "I'm an actress, and that's why I'm still here," she said. "Anybody who has the illusion that you can have a career as long as I have and be a star is kidding themselves."

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