Colleen Dewhurst had a wonderful life. It wasn't a charmed life by any stretch, but it was a full one. She was fortunate to be brilliant at her profession, which she loved so much she would have worked (and sometimes did) for nothing. "Once an actress," she said, "always a waitress." But on and off her beloved stage, as an actor, friend, lover, mother, it was a full life, full of passion, pain, applause, achievement and what must have been a level of satisfaction most of us dream of. Full of great art, many cigarettes and many bottles of white wine it was never, it seemed, for one moment dull or complacent. Though she died too early, she sure didn't get cheated out of anything, except perhaps wealth, which she had little regard for anyway.
One of the most complimentary things you can say about a hockey player is that he (and she these days) held nothing in reserve, instead "leaving it all out there on the ice." That was Colleen Dewhurst's approach to life. She became known as THE definitive interpreter of the harrowing and demanding dramas of Eugene O'Neill, a label that came to vex her. She lamented that her obituary would read "O'Neill interpreter died somewhere yesterday.
It's kind of funny, actually, reading the American-based websites about her life. Her father was a professional athlete and given the Canadian specific, they all presume he must have been a hockey player. In fact he played for the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders. One of the most significant contributions he made to his tomboy daughter's young life was teaching her how to throw a punch to avenge the abuse inflicted by the Mean Girls in high school. One Mean Girls' broken nose later, she was left alone. She was, and would remain, a feisty lass. It was once written that she had a face that belonged on Mt. Rushmore, omitting that she also had a temper like Mt. Etna. As playing in the CFL in those days was not a way to make your family rich,
Dewhurst (and this is no small achievement) had to work at odd jobs to pay her own way into and through the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. There was no doubt about what she wanted to be.
She made her debut on Broadway in 1946, while still in school, in The Royal Family
. Dewhurst had a remarkable presence as a stunningly handsome rather than delicately beautiful woman. One of her early and favorite stories was about actually turning down the great Joseph Papp, who was essentially God to aspiring Broadway actors back in those days. He had invited her, sight unseen, to audition for a production of Romeo and Juliet
he was mounting. Her autobiography records the conversation like this:
Dewhurst: Have you ever seen me Mr. Papp?
Dewhurst: Well I couldn't play Juliet even when I was thirteen.
The impression she left was positive enough for Papp to cast her in the somewhat less romantic Titus Andronicus as Tamora, Queen of the Goths
In 1958, she signed on to an off-Broadway production of Children of Darkness
. This was less notable professionally than personally, as this was where she met her soul-mate, George C. Scott. They were both married at the time, though not to each other, and after a pair of messy divorces, moved in together and eventually married –then divorced – then re-married. Was it George Bernard Shaw who observed that second marriages represent "the triumph of hope over experience?" What would he have quipped about second marriages to the same person?
Scott was a brilliant, multi-award winning actor, a formidable man. Their connection was obviously profound. As a husband, he seemed to be a hundred miles of bad road. Still, Dewhurst adored him always, and refused to speak ill of him when she was dying. There is just not enough time or space to share all the superlative reviews Dewhurst received over time, so, let's hit the heights.
Her greatest personal triumph was her unequaled portrayal of Josie Hogan, the Irish-American farmer's daughter, alongside Jason Robards in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten
. Her first performance of this defining role was in Spoleto, Italy in 1957, with the accomplished stage director Jose Quintero. It was December 1973 before it would open on Broadway, to much acclaim. Lavish would be an understatement. Dewhurst, with more than a little pride, notes in her book the review written by the great theatre critic of the New York Times, Clive Barnes: “There are some performances in the theatre, just a few that urge along as if they were holding the whole world on a tidal wave. I felt that surge, that excitement, that special revealed truth . . . This is a land-mark production that people will talk about for many years. It seemed to me an ideal cast . . . in one of the great plays of the twentieth century”. (December 31, 1973)
She wrote that "it was the most wonderful Christmas and New Year's I had ever celebrated and the best time of my life." She explained her own theory as to why she had such a touch with O'Neill's women: “They feel, they need and they act. Their greatest mistakes, which often create great tragedies, always have as their basis, love.
Co-star Jason Robards offered a touching recollection of the experience: “I will never forget listening to Colleen screaming "Father, Father, I love you." It just broke my heart hearing it every night. What the hell are you going to do? Play this every night for a year and go home and tear your heart out? No, the play does it for you. And the rest of the time, you might as well have a good time out there”.
They made their epic stage performance into a TV movie, one of her seven Emmy
nominations. Dewhurst's Emmy Award
win, though seemingly a long way from O'Neill (and Albee et al) to a sitcom on the small screen, was something she managed to pull off. Her memoirs record that the final choice for playing the mother of ace reporter Murphy Brown
, in one of the best television series ever, came down to Colleen Dewhurst and Lauren Bacall. Both would have been superb, and Dewhurst won the role and an Emmy
. Ms. Brown, wonderfully played by Candice Bergen, was a formidable TV journalist, fondly nicknamed by the show's anchorman as "Slugger" for her hard-hitting reportage. Of course, Mom, (Dewhurst), who raised such a forceful young woman, made her daughter seem like a walk in the park, by comparison.
For all her fabulous performances and the great dramatic lines she got to deliver, few are likely better remembered by more people than this, one of TV's all-time classic great lines:
Murphy: It was bad enough you making the waiter take the steak back, but did you have to follow him back and make the chef eat it?
Avery: If you keep letting people get away with shoddy work, then you end up with President Quayle.
(And on the off-chance you don't remember Dan Quayle, rest assured it is an absolutely devastating line.)
Much like Kate Reid, most of Dewhurst's screen success came on television Murphy Brown
was one, but she was welcome on the best series there were to be had Dr. Kildare, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Big Valley, Moonlighting
and, slightly below the bar, Love Boat
But for Canadians she is best remembered as Marilla in two movies about the venerable Canadian institution, Anne of Green Gables
. Anne had a long tradition of film adaptations dating back to the silent movie era in 1919. There were also versions made in the 1930s and 1940s. It took a good Canadian boy named Kevin Sullivan and an unbelievably precocious young actor named Megan Follows to capture it, along with Dewhurst, in 1985, for television audiences around the world.
Her reputation and talent earned her roles in some great films but they weren’t' really her priority. She had grand supporting roles with Sean Connery in A Fine Madness
, and was Diane Keaton's mother in the Oscar-winning Woody Allen movie Annie Hall
. Perhaps she most enjoyed playing opposite her talented son Campbell, in the JuliaRoberts
movie, Dying Young
: “Mr. Scott, who cuts a dashing figure and enables the coy, bashful flirtation between Victor and Hilary to be drawn out more slowly and teasingly than would otherwise have seemed possible. Also in the film, and providing a kind of grace note, is Colleen Dewhurst, Mr. Scott's mother (George C. Scott is his father), who plays a knowing Mendocino resident with a colorful past, a garden maze and an unfortunate gift for foretelling the future. Mr. Scott's exceptional assurance and his mother's in these scenes are very much in tune."
Her memoirs close with a speech she gave to the graduating class of Sarah Lawrence College. “Listen, my darlings, It's terrific out there. What it's about is joy. It's about joy and agony and pain and believe me you can't go around it or under it. You've got to go through it.”