Nancy Marchand, 1928–2000

One Woman in Her Time Played Many Parts

The headlines, of course, said that Livia Soprano was dead; the obituaries that ran below spent much of their space pondering how her loss would alter the tangled plot of the HBO series preparing to enter its third season. The inevitable fantasies were spun: of flashbacks, of material shot and waiting to be used, of new footage with stand-ins and voice-overs. Among the mawkish, misspelled, heartfelt condolence e-mails piling up on the message board at the official Sopranos Web site, one fan wrote, "My heart goes out to the writers." And a surprising number came from Italian Americans who identified Nancy Marchand with their own mothers or grandmothers, sending prayers, poems, blessings, and farewell messages like "Ciao, Nonna."

Despite what cynics may say about Americans' cultural amnesia, however, the passionate fans probably spoke for viewers in general when they drew a clear distinction, in Marchand's case, between the performer and the role. Livia Soprano had become an icon to them, but they knew, by and large, that Nancy Marchand was not Livia Soprano. Most obviously, they knew because so many of them had first encountered her as Lou Grant's Mrs. Pynchon, a forceful, maternal figure as different from Livia as Livia was from the Nancy Marchand her theater colleagues knew and loved. And Mrs. Pynchon, through Nancy's incisiveness and magnetism, had captured the public imagination to the same extent as Livia; even collective amnesia can't wash away, without considerable effort, a performance popular enough to win the Emmy four out of five seasons running.

In addition to Mrs. Pynchon, Marchand's video fans were aware of the flurry of movies she'd made in the early '90s: Sabrina was frequently mentioned, and one e-mailer celebrated the surprise of seeing a "younger" Nancy turn up in 1988's The Naked Gun. How would he have reacted, one wonders, to the sight of a truly young Nancy, fidgety and wistful, opposite Rod Steiger in the original 1953 TV version of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty? Only now, looking back across a career that spanned half a century, can we realize that Nancy Marchand accomplished one of the near-impossible feats of American acting: She made even the technological media, home of typecasting, perceive her as a repertory actress, cutting across class and ethnic lines as easily as she traversed the generations.

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

That the viewers, and her TV colleagues, responded to this approach may be the best praise our videocentric civilization will ever get. It made reporting her death, in effect, a challenge that entertainment-news journalists handled honorably for the most part: They acknowledged her theater career and noted the names of her movies; readers and televiewers in a remarkably large number of cities were informed that Marchand had won two Obies. (One Jersey paper called her "star of stage and Sopranos.") The L.A. Times, home paper of a city not famous for its obsession with theater, went so far as to include her Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. Ironically, the only print media to confine Nancy's career to her TV roles were our own New York Post and Entertainment Weekly. And only Marvin Kitman, in his Newsday tribute, committed, albeit gracefully, the solecism of confusing actress and role: "I don't want to speak ill of the dead," he wrote, recounting Livia's outrageous acts of malice as if they had been committed by Nancy in real life.

That life, as most theatergoing New Yorkers know, was one in which the outrageous acts were acts of artistic risk and artistic clarity, committed onstage out of a wholehearted passion for the theater. Majestically tall, long-boned, and elegant of profile, Nancy was an actress for whom no role that interested her was beyond accessibility; technique merely meant a readiness to find the part of herself available for any such role; and the only reason to demand more was that you weren't being used by the theater to your fullest extent. She belonged to the post-World War II generation that vitalized the early Off-Broadway movement. Her 47-year marriage to the actor Paul Sparer, who died last November, ran on an overlapping track with her artistic career. They were among the founders of the APA Repertory Company, where I first saw Nancy, playing everything from Lady Sneerwell to a low-down procuress—a range so extensive that I was never startled, later on, by her revelatory capacity. (When she played Ann Whitefield, in Man and Superman, Rosemary Harris played Violet; in later performances they exchanged roles.)

By that time, she had already won her first Obie, for creating the role of Madame Irma in the New York premiere of Genet's The Balcony, establishing the niche of "imperious" roles in which the typecasters would like to leave her. But even imperiousness has its nuances, and Madame Irma is a long way from the ironclad, alcoholic mother in Gurney's The Cocktail Hour (her second Obie, three decades later); Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing!; or Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius. And there was nothing "imperious" about the work for which she was probably most loved by Broadway audiences—the fluttery, scatterbrained matron of Morning's at Seven. She had the great artist's gift for letting the opposite quality seep into her most decisive choices. I am probably one of the few people who remember seeing her, in Chicago, make a rare venture into musical theater as the soigné, hardheaded Vera of Pal Joey; she's the only performer, out of hundreds, whom I've ever heard sing "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" as if she actually were all those things, making the worn-out old song fresh and dramatic.

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.

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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