UPDATE, TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Broadway will dim the lights in memory of Marian Seldes at 7:45 PM Wednesday, October 8
Five-time Tony nominee Marian Seldes began her Broadway career at age 19 in 1947, performing in John Gielgud’s staging of Medea with Dame Judith Anderson. She became an enduring stage legend through her performances in Equus and Deathtrap opposite such stars as Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton and John Wood and enjoyed a resurgent career when she was well into her 70s. Seldes died Monday evening at her Central Park South home in Manhattan following a long illness. She was 86.
“It is with deep sadness that I share the news that my dear sister Marian Seldes has died,” her brother, Timothy Seldes, said. “She was an extraordinary woman whose great love of the theater, teaching and acting was surpassed only by her deep love for her family.”
Seldes won her first Tony Award in 1967 for her performance in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which is about to begin performances in a Broadway revival. In 2010, she was awarded a Tony for Lifetime Achievement. She caused much amused head-scratching with her acceptance of that honor when she took to the stage, placed hand on heart as she stared out at the audience, and exited without uttering a word. Afterward she explained somewhat mischievously that she was simply following instructions to “keep it short.” It was the quintessential Marian Seldes act of rebellion.
Lithe and long-limbed, Seldes moved like a dancer and held the stage with quiet but firm constancy, compelling an audience to pay attention. This reflected her training under Sanford Meisner at the legendary Neighborhood Playhouse, as well as with the modern dance choreographer Martha Graham. It was evident whether she was playing the magistrate charged with investigating a troubled boy’s horrific act of equicide in Peter Shaffer’s Equus or the hapless wife of a murderous writer in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, a role that became legendary both for her eyes, which were the model for the long-running thriller’s famed poster, and for the fact that she never missed a single one of the show’s 1,809 performances over a four-year run.
She’d achieved the same record in Equus, eventually playing both adult female leading roles. Her fortitude led to a common saying around Broadway precincts that there was no worse job than to be Marian Seldes’ understudy. Her performance in Deathtrap also earned her a Tony nomination; her others were for her performances in Ring Round The Moon, Father’s Day and Dinner At Eight. She last appeared on Broadway in 2007, opposite Angela Lansbury in Terrence McNally’s Deuce.
Seldes had a particular affinity for Albee’s work, and it was in his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women that she began a triumphant second chapter in her stage career. At the time, she was married to the legendary stage and screenwriter and director Garson Kanin, following the death of his wife, Ruth Gordon; Seldes and Kanin were married from 1990 until Kanin’s death in 1999.
Seldes’ films and TV appearances included Truman, in which she played Eleanor Roosevelt; Leatherheads; as Murphy Brown’s eccentric aunt; and as Mr. Big’s mother in Sex And The City.
Seldes, who grew up on Henderson Place in Manhattan near Gracie Mansion, came from a literary family. Her father was the critic and intellectual gadfly Gilbert Seldes, and her uncle was the journalist and media critic George Seldes. Marian often used intermissions and the time between matinee and evening performances to write book reviews, and published two books of her own, The Bright Lights: A Theater Life and Time Together.
In the 1960s and ’70s, with Broadway drama all but dead, Seldes was a mainstay of off-Broadway, especially at the American Place Theatre, where she starred in Jeff Wanshel’s Isadora Duncan Sleeps With The Russian Navy and Anne Sexton’s Mercy Street. She taught at the Juilliard School and counted many of today’s stars — including Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, William Hurt, Kelsey Grammer, Kevin Spacey, Patti Lupone, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Christine Baranski, Viola Davis and Robin Williams — as her students and proteges.
Marian was old school of the first order. She called everyone “Darling” in a stage whisper, and had a way of making you believe she was fully concentrated on you and you alone. I interviewed her for the first time during the run of Deathtrap, when she had just published The Bright Lights, and during the next 35 years she treated me like family. I had a thousand siblings.