Alabama actress Boots Carroll dies; she had role in ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’
By Greg Garrison
Anna Lee "Boots" Carroll, an Alabama actress who appeared in dozens of plays and several movies, set a standard of excellence in Birmingham theater.
Carroll played Nurse Bradford in the 1968 movie "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," sharing two scenes with star Alan Arkin, who was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his role. Carroll did the talking in both scenes, since Arkin played a deaf-mute coming to visit his friend at a hospital for the insane. The movie was based on the 1940 novel by legendary Southern author Carson McCullers.
Carroll also appeared in the films "Not of This Earth" in 1957 and "Womanhunt" in 1962.
Carroll died on Sunday, April 30, her friends said. She was 86.
"She was just one of the all-time great performers we had in Birmingham," said Fannie Flagg, author of "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," who met Carroll in 1960 when she was also an actress at Town and Gown Theatre.
"I had known Boots, honey, since I was 16," Flagg said in an interview today with AL.com. "I went to Town and Gown and she was there and was like a mentor to me, like an aunt. We remained friends ever since. I'm just heartbroken."
Carroll was born Oct. 7, 1930 in Birmingham and grew up in West End as the only child of the late Frederick L. "Peck" and Ella Corrine "E.C." Carroll. She never married or had children, but considered the theater part of her family. She launched her acting career in the early 1950s as one of the early players in director James Hatcher's cast at Town and Gown, founded in 1950.
She played Mama Rose in "Gypsy" in 1964. "It was really her tour de force," said Suzanne Mann, who met Carroll in 1962 and appeared in dozens of plays with her.
"Everyone was in awe of her," Mann said. "The theater gave her life. The theater became her life."
Flagg said she was in numerous plays with Carroll. "I can't even remember how many plays we were in together," Flagg said. "One of the great things, she was the lead role in 'Gypsy.' I was in it. Suzanne Mann played Gypsy and I was one of the strippers. She was just excellent."
Carroll worked in the clerical department of A&P Grocery, then later in the nephrology department at UAB, Mann said.
But her true calling was always theater.
"She got on stage and was absolutely fearless; she had spot-on timing and instinct," Mann said. "It was truly phenomenal."
She played the lead in "Hello, Dolly," "Funny Girl" and Regina in "Little Foxes."
In addition to plays at Town and Gown, Virginia Samford Theatre, Birmingham Festival Theatre and Terrific New Theatre, she performed with traveling troupes such as Wit's Other End and the Seasoned Performers. She was a stalwart of Birmingham theater from 1952 through her last performance in 2015.
"She was the one who was the most consistent; she was always there," Mann said. "Whenever somebody needed somebody, she never questioned, 'This part is not big enough for me.' There was never any ego involved. It was, 'This is what I do.'"
She continued to perform until 2012, when she fell off the stage at the Virginia Samford Theatre during a dress rehearsal for a show. She was rushed to the hospital and during an examination, a tumor was found that had to be removed.
She returned to the stage, but had another surgery last year and her health continued to decline, Mann said.
"She was always entertaining," said actress Jan Hunter, who appeared with her in "Bye Bye Birdie" and other plays, then served as her legal guardian over the past several years. "Her natural habitat was the stage. She was always funny, made everybody laugh, was loud and boisterous."
Carroll lived more than 20 years at Episcopal Place, where many residents had seen her in plays. "She was a celebrity around here," said Hunter, who serves as activities director at Episcopal Place. "She was forever the entertainer."
She was the last of a group of formidable actresses who pioneered the Town and Gown Theatre, along with Virginia Mae Schmitt, who died in 2014, Flagg recalled.
"Boots was the last of an era," Fannie Flagg said. "I can guarantee you she had a good life. Boots was full of fun. Everywhere she went, she had fun. For the rest of her life, she lived around the corner from the theater she loved. She got to see all of the shows and people took care of her. They took care of her like a family. It's the end of an era. It's heartbreaking."
CARROLL, Anna Lee
Born: 10/7/1930, Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A.
Died: 4/30/2017, Episcopal Place, Alabama, U.S.A.
Anna Lee Carroll’s westerns – actress:
The Adventures of Kit Carson (TV) – 1951 (Vi Bonner)
The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (TV) – 1952 (Betty Chester, Ada Beecher)
The Range Rider (TV) – 1953 (Susan Campbell)
The Road to Denver – 1955 (Miss Honeywell)
Death Valley Days (TV) – 1960 (Mrs. Gibbs)
The Deputy (TV) – 1961 (Sally)
Empire (TV) – 1963 (Holen)