Nancy Marchand, 1928–2000

One Woman in Her Time Played Many Parts

Typically, when I told her this years later, she brushed it off. Unassuming, as well as insecure in many ways, she thought she "couldn't" sing, just as she thought she couldn't pronounce foreign languages. I was directing her at the time, in a short play in which she had to speak a few lines in French. I wrote them out phonetically; she spoke them with such assurance that friends visiting from Paris asked me if it was her native tongue. (This rehearsal exchange should show how easy it was to direct her: "Nancy, I need you to cry during this speech." "All right. Would you like that at the beginning of the speech or near the end?" The tears, arriving on cue, always seemed real and unbidden.)

Two juxtapositions sum up Nancy's range: the Lincoln Center season in which she played Dol Common in Jonson's Alchemist and Queen Elizabeth in Schiller's Mary Stuart; the two segments of Jon Robin Baitz's End of the Day, in which her roles were a dotty English aristocrat akin to Bea Lillie's madder caricatures, and a tough, no-nonsense California nurse. In the latter role, hands on haunches, staring voraciously, she seemed to bulk twice as large. When I asked her later how she had made her elegant hands seem so big and meaty, she grinned and said airily, "That's acting."

It was like her to say something fast and funny. Sharply observant and devoid of vanity herself, she always had a clean needle ready for the pretensions of others, and her timing, offstage as on, was unerring. A guest presenter the one year the Obie Awards were broadcast on WNET, she finished her stint by turning to the camera and saying, "I think we should thank PBS for putting so many American actors on the air—for a change." She had no shame about it because she had no fantasies about a television career. Her stardom came, ironically, despite her basic lack of regard for the medium. For her it merely meant financial security at home and a wider audience for her artistry. Far from tempting her to trade the Upper West Side for the West Coast, Lou Grant's thunderous success barely prevented her from dashing out, as she sometimes did, in her housecoat and mules to pick up a few groceries.

Nancy Marchand (seated) in The Balcony, 1960, with (left to right) Sylvia Miles, Salome Jens, and Betty Miller: an actress for all media
photo: courtesy of Theodore Mann, Paul Libin, and Circle in the Square Theatre
Nancy Marchand (seated) in The Balcony, 1960, with (left to right) Sylvia Miles, Salome Jens, and Betty Miller: an actress for all media

The columnists and condolence-senders who praised her bravery in continuing to work on The Sopranos after she was diagnosed with lung cancer didn't know the half of it. Her cancer had been diagnosed, and treated, long before the series was on the drawing boards. Apart from the irresistible temptation of a great role, her main reason for taking it was that chemotherapy had impaired her ability to remember lines. She struggled painfully with this as Lady Bracknell in the Irish Rep's Importance of Being Earnest, and abandoned her next project, a tour of the one-woman show Full Gallop. I imagine it is the only thing she ever gave up on; only a life-threatening medical crisis could have made Nancy Marchand give up.

Nor did she see any reason to conceal her condition, which as well as cancer included chronic pulmonary obstruction: She's said to have arrived at the gala screening to inaugurate the second season of The Sopranos wearing an oxygen mask. True and total theater artist that she was, she naturally understood the effectiveness of a mask worn properly in public. If we had a generation of actors and actresses with her acumen, her passion, her wit, her simultaneous sense of artistic dignity and the unabashed openness that art demands, we would have a theater for which Americans might even turn off their TVs. But in Nancy Marchand's case, we have to concede that the theater and its followers did not make as much of her as she deserved. She gave us her best, but it was the televiewers who saw her greatness. Their taste, in this case, was better than ours. As we start to face a theater from which she will be absent, we should think about that.

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