Tammy Grimes, the Original ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown,’ Dies at 82
The New York Times
By Anita Gates
October 31, 2016
Tammy Grimes, the throaty actress and singer who conquered Broadway at the age of 26, winning a Tony Award for her performance in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and went on to a distinguished stage career, died on Sunday in Englewood, N.J. She was 82.
The death was confirmed by Duncan MacArthur, her nephew.
Ms. Grimes was largely unknown in 1960 when she was cast as Molly, the rags-to-riches turn-of-the-century socialite-philanthropist who survived the sinking of the Titanic. The show’s producers, who clearly considered the music and lyrics by Meredith Willson more marketable than their female lead, declined to put her name above the title, which meant that (because of the Tony regulations of the time) she could be nominated only in the featured-actress category.
Her second Tony, for a 1969 revival of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives,” was decidedly for lead actress. Clive Barnes, writing in The New York Times, called Ms. Grimes’s interpretation of her character, the reluctant 1930s divorcée Amanda Prynne, “outrageously appealing” and “so ridiculously artificial that she just has to be for real.”
Coward was a major influence on Ms. Grimes’s career. In 1958, he saw her performing at the Manhattan nightclub Downstairs at the Upstairs and cast her as the lead in “Look After Lulu,” a new comedy he had adapted from a Feydeau farce. In 1964 she appeared in “High Spirits,” a musical version of Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” (directed but not written by Coward), playing the ghost of the leading man’s first wife. The cast included Beatrice Lillie as a medium trying to summon her and Edward Woodward as the husband. It was one of more than a dozen Broadway productions in which Ms. Grimes starred.
Her mop of blond-red hair, a pointed chin, a wide mouth and a ski-slope nose that was often compared to Bob Hope’s gave her a distinctive look.
“I never looked like an ingénue,” Ms. Grimes acknowledged in a 1960 interview with The New York Times Magazine. But that didn’t matter to her, she said, because “I don’t want to be America’s Sweetheart; I’d rather be something they don’t quite understand.”
Tammy Lee Grimes was born in Lynn, Mass., on Jan. 30, 1934, the second of three children of Luther Nichols Grimes, who managed the Brookline Country Club, and the former Eola Willard Niles. Many fans believed Ms. Grimes was British, partly because of her Mid-Atlantic accent, which she attributed to a finishing-school education.
She attended Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and graduated from Stephens College in Missouri, which she often said she had chosen because of its drama program. Then she went to work for the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where the playwright Anita Loos saw her in a student presentation and chose her for the title role in “The Amazing Adele.”
That show closed during out-of-town tryouts but did get Ms. Grimes noticed. So did her Off Broadway debut, in “The Littlest Revue,” a 1956 musical production whose cast also included Joel Grey.
Critics loved Ms. Grimes from the beginning. Howard Taubman hated “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” but praised Ms. Grimes as its “buoyant interpreter” in introducing lively, often comic song-and-dance numbers like “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” and “I Ain’t Down Yet.”
Walter Kerr compared her more than once to a stormy force of nature. Of her 1976 performance in Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” he wrote, “Everything out of her face is thunderously funny,” and a year later he reported that as Elmire in “Tartuffe” she called down “laughs sharp as thunderclaps.”
Ms. Grimes made films, including “Play It as It Lays,” “The Last Unicorn” and “Slaves of New York,” and appeared in dozens of television movies and series (including her own short-lived sitcom, “The Tammy Grimes Show,” in 1966). But the starring role in the film version of “Molly Brown” (1964) went to Debbie Reynolds, who had a more traditional Hollywood look and sound.
The stage was Ms. Grimes’s first home. The Off Broadway productions in which she starred included Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” at City Center in 1960, and a 1979 Roundabout Theater production of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” with her daughter, Amanda Plummer. Ms. Grimes also worked at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, performing at least once with her first husband, Christopher Plummer; in “Henry IV, Part I” (1958), he was Bardolph and she was Mistress Quickly.
Ms. Grimes said she fell in love with Mr. Plummer after seeing him on Broadway in “The Dark Is Light Enough” (1955), a comedy in which he played a 19th-century Hungarian count. They married in 1956 and divorced in 1960. She married Jeremy Slate, a television actor, in 1966, and they divorced the next year. She was with her third husband, the musician and composer Richard Bell, from 1971 until his death in 2005. Ms. Grimes is survived by her brother, Nick, and her daughter.
She quickly developed a reputation for star attitude. In 1961, Earl Wilson referred to her in his New York Post column as “terrible-tempered Tammy Grimes” and reported that she had been known to “hit or bite her fellow actors.” Sometimes she was more politely called mercurial.
In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor in 1980, she addressed that perception. “Well, I was very young,” she said. “It’s difficult to know what to do with success when you’re so young.”
Her last feature film role was as Ally Sheedy’s Old World mother in “High Art” (1998). Her final Broadway appearance was a supporting role in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending” (1989) starring Vanessa Redgrave.
In 2003 Ms. Grimes was part of the rotating cast of “24 Evenings of Wit and Wisdom,” a production of Off Broadway readings about aging. At the time, she told a writer for Theatermania that she was “about as ambitious as a water buffalo.”
Her voice, once described as a “lyric baritone,” also aged, but if it became whispery it also remained strong, as she demonstrated in 2010 with “Miss Tammy Grimes: Favorite Songs and Stories,” a solo cabaret show at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan.
In a 1964 interview with The Saturday Evening Post, Ms. Grimes speculated about old age and a life that she fully intended to dedicate to work. “Perhaps all you have left in the end is a scrapbook filled with old newspaper clippings,” she said.
She quickly reconsidered, however, sounding a bit like the debutante she once was. “If things get too bad,” she added, “well, there are always far-off cities and cowboys with guitars, new clothes, music boxes and large funds of traveler’s checks.”
GRIMES, Tammy (Tammy Lee Grimes)
Born: 1/30/1934, Lynn, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Died: 10/30/2016, Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Tammy Grimes’ westerns – actress:
The Virginian (TV) – 1963 (Angie Clark)
Destry (TV) – 1964 (Patience Dailey)
The Outcasts (TV) – 1969 (Polly)
The Young Riders (TV) – 1990 (Margaret Herrick)