If you can picture Dustin Hoffman’s mother in The Graduate, or Ralph Fiennes’ in Quiz Show, or, in her best known, if least characteristic film role as the treacherous foil to Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 9 To 5, you can probably summon Elizabeth Wilson’s face more quickly than her name. A ubiquitous presence in movies, television and on Broadway stages throughout a seven-decade career, Wilson died Saturday in New Haven.
With a patrician bearing that barely concealed a touch of the eccentric, Wilson was sought by directors as disparate as Alfred Hitchcock (who cast her as a waitress in The Birds) and the late Mike Nichols. He cast her not only in The Graduate and but also in Catch-22, The Day Of The Dolphin and Regarding Henry, and also in a 1973 Broadway revival of Uncle Vanya that starred Julie Christie, George C. Scott, Lillian Gish and, in the title role, Nicol Williamson. Wilson worked in television throughout her professional life, whether with Rod Serling in the 1955 drama Patterns or police procedurals including Law & Order: Criminal Intent. For Norman Lear, she played Edith Bunker’s cousin on CBS’ All in the Family. She had a recurring role in the late 1970s as star Barnard Hughes’s wife on the CBS sitcom Doc.
Wilson was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and came to New York to study with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which rivaled the Actors’ Studio as an incubator of major acting talent. She made her Broadway debut in the original 1953 production of William Inge’s Picnic, opposite Kim Stanley and Paul Newman. I was lucky enough to have seen her in several seminal stage roles of her late career: In 1972, she played Harriet opposite Tom Aldredge’s Ozzie Nelson in David Rabe’s searing anti-war play Sticks And Bones, for which she won the Tony Award as best actress in a featured role. In 1980, she was part of a brilliant ensemble of women including Nancy Marchand, Teresa Wright and Maureen O’Sullivan, in Vivian Matalon’s Tony-winning revival of Paul Osborne’s deceptively gentle period comedy Morning’s At Seven.
Wilson played the wife in a timid couple moved by an unknown terror to camp out with their dysfunctional neighbors in the celebrated 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Her last Broadway appearance was in Jeremy Sams’ revisal of Noël Coward’s Waiting in The Wings, co-starring Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Harris and the real life husband-and-wife team of Helen Stenborg and Barnard Hughes.
Other major Broadway roles included Mrs. Peachum in a 1976 revival of The Threepenny Opera and a revival 0f Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, playing Robards’ sister, in 1988. She continued supporting the theater, appearing at galas honoring the work of writers and directors who’d kept her busy all those years.