Tammy Grimes, the whiskey-voiced actress who went out an ingenue and came back a star in the title role of The Unsinkable Molly Brown — and later played Dorothy Brock, a star overshadowed by an ingenue in 42nd Street, died Sunday in Englewood, New Jersey. She was 82.
A perennial favorite of critics and audiences, Grimes exuded sophistication that showed off her finishing-school breeding even when playing strivers and pretenders. A creature of the stage with a patrician air and a sultry rasp of a voice, she won two Tony Awards and was a veteran of Broadway and off-Broadway whose career spanned more than half a century. In 1962, Meredith Willson cast her as Molly Tobin, the heroine of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, his followup to The Music Man. Molly is a determined girl from
Missouri who marries a speculator, moves to Denver and then to Europe, where the Browns are treated far better than at home. When Molly later realizes that she needs to be home in Denver with her husband, she sets sail — on the Titanic, a voyage she survives as a hero saving the lives of others. Although the critics generally dismissed the show as inferior to The Music Man, they loved Grimes and her co-star, Harve Presnell. Grimes won the Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical (her below-the-title billing kept her from getting the top nomination).
“One haughty hoot from her train-whistle voice and you feel the Santa Fe is coming and you’d just better duck,” critic Walter Kerr wrote about Grimes in his Herald Tribune review of Molly Brown. “It has — I don’t believe it but I was there — an eerie delicacy beneath all its bravura, a kind of mountain-stream ripple that wavers and whispers between every two notes…That isn’t a person up there on the stage at all. It’s Raggedy Ann out of the Cabinet of Dr Caligari.” Despite the acclaim, she was not asked to reprise the role for Charles Waters’ 1964 film version; he wanted Shirley MacLaine and ended up with Debbie Reynolds.
Eighteen years later, director-choreographer cast her in the Depression-era 42nd Street as Dorothy Brock, the established star who is to play the lead in director Julian Marsh’s musical “Pretty Lady,” which he hopes will be the comeback he desperately needs. When Dorothy is sidelined by an accident on opening night, the role is taken over by the unknown bumpkin Peggy Sawyer, as Marsh (played by Jerry Orbach) famously tells her, “You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” Peggy obliges him. But Dorothy does get to warble a few of the show’s classic songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in the David Merrick valedictory, including “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me,” “I Know Now” and “About A Quarter To Nine.” Mark Bramble, a co-auhor of the hit show’s book, Tweeted:
Grimes won her second Tony Award in 1970 for a revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, playing Amanda Prynne opposite Brian Bedford’s Elyot Chase, Amanda’s ex-husband, when they find themselves in adjacent rooms of the seaside resort where they’re honeymooning with their new spouses. Her last Broadway appearance was in Peter Hall’s 1989 revival of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, with
co-stars Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson. She appeared in Neil Simon’s California Suite and High Spirits, a musical based on Coward’s Blithe Spirit, among other shows on and off-Broadway, notably the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 1979 revival of Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, in which she co-starred with Amanda Plummer, her daughter from her early marriage to actor Christopher Plummer.
Grimes’ film and television appearances included a short-lived, self-named sitcom in 1966 after she bowed out of the starring role in Bewitched, reportedly because she didn’t wish to do a show that depended on special effects. Her films include Play It As It Lays, The Runner Stumbles and High Art.
Grimes later married Jeremy Slate, a television actor, in 1966, and they divorced the next year. She was married to musician and composer Richard Bell from 1971 until his death in 2005, and is survived by her brother, Nick, and her daughter.