Saturday, October 15, 2011

Soapy Obits: Don't Don't Don't Don't Don't Panic

The death this week of one of my favorite character actresses encouraged me to make room for these ladies in the obituary file.
Jane White


She identified herself as African-American, though her mixed race parentage gave her light-skinned complexion a Mediterranean look. It was both a blessing and a curse. In her early career (and against her own moral judgement), she lightened her skin with make-up and auditioned for the role which would become her most famous, the scheming Queen Aggravain in the original Off-Broadway production of Once Upon A Mattress. She would repeat the role, opposite Carol Burnett, on Broadway and in two television versions.

She complained that casting directors felt she was "too black to be white, and too white to be black," so she missed the stardom she craved. She was well regarded for her work in the classics, spending much stage time at the NY Shakespeare Festival, and winning an Obie for her work in Coriolanus and Love's Labor's Lost. White spent some time on the daytime soaps, and was a bit of a groundbreaker there. In fact, my first glimpse of her, years before I realized she was on my cast album for Once Upon A Mattress, was on The Edge of Night. Back in those early days, I would dash home from school to catch the latest episode of Dark Shadows (yes, I was that guy), and often, I would flick the TV on a few minutes early. On one of those afternoons, the channel was set to The Edge of Night; the very first scene of a traditional soap opera I can ever remember seeing featured Jane White. She was playing a duplicitous private nurse, employed by a wealthy senior, who was secretly embezzling from her patient. The fact that I remember her so clearly from an episode from the 1960s is proof that she made quite an impression. I discovered, decades later, that she was the first African-American female to be placed under contract to a daytime soap. Jane White died July 24, from cancer. Speaking of soap operas, this lady is also in that genre's history books:

Mary Fickett


She was well respected for her stage career, which was launched when she replaced Deborah Kerr in the Broadway production of Tea and Sympathy. In 1958, she played Eleanor Roosevelt, opposite Ralph Bellamy's FDR, in Sunrise at Campobello, for which she was nominated for a Tony.

But she deserves a space in these pages for her performance as matriarch Ruth Martin on All My Children. She appeared in the original episode of the series in 1970, and three years later was awarded the first Emmy Award ever granted to a performer in daytime drama. Her character on the soap was mother to a Vietnam vet, and she was usually given the politically charged speeches which writer Agnes Nixon peppered throughout those early years of the show. Fickett left the series after 26 years to care for her dying husband, but occasionally returned until her Alzheimer's forced her retirement. She died last month at the age of 83, unaware that the show which earned her soap opera's first Emmy Award for acting, had been cancelled.

Doris Belack


She had a no-nonsense demeanor which, mixed with a strong comic sense, gave her lots of work on stage and television. The list of her sitcom credits, dating from The Patty Duke Show through Sex and the City, would fill up this page. She was a one-episode replacement for Florence Stanley as Abe Vigoda's wife on Barney Miller, and she played Bea Arthur's sister in the first season of The Golden Girls. Those who knew her personally agreed that she was an invaluable partner to her husband (of 65 years!) Philip Rose, who was the producer responsible for Raisin in the Sun and Purlie Victorious, at a time when bringing non-musical plays starring blacks and written by blacks to Broadway was considered lunacy. Doris spent some time playing a judge in the Law and Order franchise, and earlier, was an original cast member of One Life To Live. But she is most fondly remembered, at least by me, as Rita Marshall, the producer of the fictional soap-within-a-film which is at the center of Tootsie. Sydney Pollock's casting of Doris Belack in the role of the executive producer of Southwest General, was just one of his masterful moves; Tootsie is full of beautifully rendered, specifically unique comic performances, beginning with Dustin Hoffman of course, and including Jessica Lange (who won the Oscar), Teri Garr (who should have), Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Lynn Thigpen, Ellen Foley, Pollock himself (in a truly hilarious turn as a theatrical agent), all the way down to the one-liner by Estelle Getty. Belack's role in Tootsie was actually based on Gloria Monty, the real-life dragonlady who took the reigns of General Hospital in 1978 and rescued the show from cancellation (George Gaynes, playing the aging Lothario who stars in Southwest General, was also playing a role based on a real person from General Hospital, actor John Beradino). You can catch most of this dynamite cast in the following climactic clip:  Whether intentionally or by happenstance, Doris's portrayal of Rita Marshall helped illustrate Tootsie's underlying theme of gender expectation, and the difficulty women experience of maintaining femininity while being in a position of power. She died this week at the age of 85, only 4 months after the death of her husband. A joint memorial is being held in Manhattan on Monday, to celebrate the theatrical couple.