UPDATES, 1:45 p.m. with more information, below: Screen and stage actress, songbird and survivor Polly Bergen, first known as the terror-stricken wife in the original Cape Fear, died Saturday at home in Southbury, Connecticut, according to her publicist, Judy Katz. She was 84. A lifelong smoker, she died of complications from emphysema. Fans from her early days as the host of NBC’s The Polly Bergen Show will be remembering her tonight by her theme song, the Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green standard, “The Party’s Over.”
Bergen lived a life of stardom, crashes and rebounds epitomized in one of her last performances, playing a fading actress in a 2001 Broadway revival of Follies, in which she all but roared Stephen Sondheim’s bittersweet anthem of survival, “I’m Still Here.” Her late life resurgence included stints on TV as Felicity Huffman’s mother on Desperate Housewives and a mistress of Tony Soprano’s father on The Sopranos. She won an Emmy in 1958 for playing actress-singer Helen Morgan on Playhouse 90 and was nominated for another in 1989 for War and Remembrance. Combining a droll sense of humor and an infectious smile, she was a regular personality on several popular game shows, notably To Tell The Truth.
Bergen began her film career working in comedy with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in At War With the Army, followed by That’s My Boy and The Stooge. She made her Broadway debut with Harry Belafonte in the revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac in 1953.
Opposite Robert Mitchum’s terrorizing ex-con, she played the wife of Gregory Peck in the 1962 Cape Fear. And she served two stints in the White House, first as POTUS in 1964’s Kisses for My President, then in 2005 as President Geena Davis’s mother in the 2005 TV series Commander in Chief.
An outspoken critic of Hollywood’s lack of great roles for women, Bergen ankled the industry to create her namesake company, which later was sold to Faberge. Beginning in the 1990s, she discovered a new, more intimate audience as a whiskey-voiced chanteuse and story-teller in Manhattan and Beverly Hills supper clubs. Broadway legend has it that when she couldn’t get an audition for the Follies revival, she approached Sondheim directly and sang for him. She won the role, and a Tony nomonation in the process.