Tuesday, March 9, 2010



Another one of my favorite character actresses who spent her career "in support," Martin had a lengthy stage and screen career, which continued even after her stroke in 1981. She showed an independent spirit in her early years, when she was elected the first female student body president at Santa Monica High. Her first big splash came with her Tony nominated performance in Archibald MacLeish's J.B. in 1960, a ground-breaking production which also starred Christopher Plummer and Raymond Massey. Her New York stage career thrived in the early 60s; under Joe Papp's direction, she played Portia opposite George C. Scott's Shylock, and Gertrude opposite Julie Harris's Ophelia. She spent much of the next year in London, where she again starred with Scott in Three Sisters, in a prestigious production whose cast included Sandy Dennis and Kim Stanley.

Around this time, she was appointed by President Kennedy as theatre chairwoman of the new Arts Advisory Committee at the State Department, a position which took her across the globe.

Nan Martin had ongoing professional relationships with Edward Albee (Three Tall Women), Tennessee Williams (Eccentricities of a Nightingale), and Horton Foote (Dividing the Estate), and was a major player on regional theatre stages (here in DC, she won the 1990 Helen Hayes Award for her performance in Road to Mecca, opposite Kathy Bates). I saw her in one of her many performances at South Coast Rep in La Jolla, CA. SCR is a major regional theatre close enough to Los Angeles that one could drive out to see the show and return home the same day. I learned after the performance that I almost saw Martin's understudy. She had snagged a TV gig which kept her in Hollywood until rush hour, making it impossible for her to get out to La Jolla in time to make her 8 PM curtain. Here's the mark of a true stage trooper: instead of forcing her understudy to go on, Nan hired a helicopter at her own expense to fly her from the studio to the theatre in order to make her evening show.

Martin's film career included various movies co-starring Dean Martin, Sidney Poitier, and Ali MacGraw, and horror fans will recognize her from the third installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, in which she played Freddy Krueger's mother. She taught acting at Will Geer's Theatrical Botanicum in the Topanga canyon of Los Angeles, and directed several shorts for the AFI Program for Women Directors.
Most folks, though, will recognize her from her television appearances. Early on, she guested on such landmarks as Twilight Zone, The Defenders, and The Fugitive, and later, she became a go-to gal on various sitcoms. She played a recurring role on The Drew Carey Show, playing his boss Mrs. Louder:

She appeared a couple of times on The Golden Girls, including the hilarious "It's a Miserable Life," in which her performance as a cranky neighbor sparked a visit to a funeral home for our gals. Below, please enjoy a brief clip of the episode:

Nan Martin died last week at the age of 82.