Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater
by Ellis Nassour

    The Tony Awards will mark 64 years of excellence on Broadway on Sunday, when the ceremony emanates live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS in a three-hour telecast beginning at 8 P.M.

    Prior to that, a number of special awards will be presented: The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center [Waterford, CT] will receive the Regional Theatre Tony. David Hyde Pierce will receive the Isabelle Stevenson Award [named in memory of the late American Theatre Wing president]. Tony Honors for Excellence will go to the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, B.H. Barry, and Tom Viola.

    And there will be two Tony Awards given for Lifetime Achievement: to playwright/director Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Tony and Drama Desk Award- winning actress Marian Seldes.


    Ms. Seldes, who will be 82 in August, has long mesmerized audiences with unique, multi-layered performances that have ranged from farce to extreme drama. She's celebrating over 65 years in New York theater.

    What has kept her working all these years? "I like to think that I don't play anything as usual, as expected, in a stereotyped way. Sometimes, say if you're in a recurring TV role, you constantly replay the part, but if you do plays you don't play the same part over and over. That's the magic of my life in the theater, certainly with the living playwrights I've worked with. They don't repeat themselves."

    She considers her good fortune to have played in the works of Tennessee Williams, Peter Shaffer, Edward Albee, Neil Simon and Terrence McNally. "And that's only five," she quips. "I could go on."

    Of that list, there were many she never dreamed she'd get to work with. "With some playwrights," she says, "you sense that you might fit into their work but that magic element of opportunity never comes. It's the fate of the theater that if you work hard enough and live long enough, you do get to work with a great many."

    She states that with age her roles have become more and more interesting. "That's why I'm able to matter to audiences - because of what I've been able to act in and the characters I've played. In film, the older you get the more difficult it is to get work. In theater, the longer you last, the better for you. It's wonderful to see a beautiful or handsome actor, but that isn't the standard in the theater. It's the talent that's our standard.

    "The days of handsome leading men and gorgeous leading ladies are gone," continues Ms. Seldes. "One of our greatest actors was Jason Robards Jr. And one of our greatest actresses was Kim Stanley. It was their talent that was so great.

    "Both were unbelievably wonderful in that when they played someone handsome or beautiful they became handsome and beautiful," she continues. "As was the case with Kim Stanley in Bus Stop [she originated the role of Cherie] - beautiful; and Picnic [in the role of the plain sister Millie to Janice Rule's Madge] - plain. They could be anything, anything!"

    For Marian Seldes, the rehearsal process is thrilling. "Finding your way and trying different things is wonderful." She has and will work with veteran directors, and those making their debuts."

    Her loyalty is always to the playwright. "Most actors talk about the terror of opening night and the critics, but if I feel I've come near what the author wants, I'm very satisfied. I welcome the critics. Let them come! I'm doing what I know the playwright wants and what I love to do, and I won't be destroyed if it's not highly praised."

    She wonders if the public realizes that the director is never chosen without the 100% approval of the author. "Therefore, although according to theater protocol, you follow what the director asks of you because you know he or she's in tune with the author. And in the case of Edward and the two of the plays of his I've done, he'd already directed them. So I absolutely knew what he wanted."

    Ms. Seldes spoke of Tennessee Williams. "If he was a shy man - and, indeed, he was, he was so convivial. He was famous for his laugh and not taking himself seriously. Tennessee was easy to be around, lovely to be around. You never felt his ego. What I found surprising for so brilliant a writer was how depreciating he was of his gifts."

    No one should be surprised with the number of accolades heaped on this actress, for Ms. Seldes has worked with giants, "the gold standard," and admits a lot rubbed off on her.

    She's performed with John Gielgud in Albee's Tiny Alice, where she stood by for Irene Worth; also Crime and Punishment; and, at a mere 18 years of age, Medea. Then with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, in Albee's A Delicate Balance; a young Audrey Hepburn in Ondine; Gladys Cooper, Siobhán McKenna, and Fritz Weaver in The Chalk Garden; Tallulah Bankhead and Ruth Ford, the short-lived revival of Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore [which co-starred Tab Hunter]; and John Wood [and later John Cullum] and Frances Sternhagen, Deathtrap.

    She followed opposite Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins and Richard Burton in Equus; Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland, The Gift of Time [featured but also Ms. de Havilland's standby]; George C. Scott, The Wall; Gladys Cooper and Siobhan McKenna, The Chalk Garden; Katharine Cornell and Henry Daniell, That Lady; and Lillian Gish, Crime and Punishment.

    Among contemporary "giants," she's played opposite are Judith Anderson, Medea, which was her Broadway debut; Kevin Kline in Ivanov;a very young Victor Garber, Deathtrap; and Nathan Lane in Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams; and Angela Lansbury, Deuce. Ms. Seldes reunited with Fritz Weaver in Ring Around the Moon, anchored 45 Seconds from Broadway; and the revival of Dinner at Eight, which featured Christine Ebersole.

    "John [Gielgud] was my theater god," she effuses, her face radiating. "I credit him with molding me as an actress. I also loved the Lunts, but I never had the pleasure of working with them onstage. However, Alfred directed Ondine [1954], where I was featured opposite Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn."

    In spite of the many difficulties with the ever-changing script during previews, she says "It was one of the most incredible joys of my career to work with Angela Lansbury in Duece." As much respect as she had for Ms. Lansbury, it grew as they faced daily challenges. "We were troupers. We didn't throw in the towel."

    She called working with Lane in Dedication "such a happy experience. Nathan is so delicious. We know and love him and he's a genuine star, but that's not who comes into rehearsals. An actor comes. He's a member of the company and when we have our break, he's usually studying the script or doing something quiet by himself. We might have coffee, but we don't jog around the block.

    "Because Nathan's funny, successful, and all that," she continues, "you have a sort of vision of him. But he's a marvelous actor with an incredible range. I've benefited from his bountiful generosity. You can share with him, take from him, give to him. It makes rehearsing a joy!"

    Then there is her devoted friend and frequent companion Brian Murray, whom she co-starred with in The Butterfly Collection and The Play About the Baby. "He's a miracle to work with," she states with sincerity. "He's just marvelous in every way, and a wonderful director. You would think that being so good, he wouldn't be receptive to the suggestions of other directors, but he is. He's one of the truest actors I know."

    In the playwright department, of course, there's Albee. She spends moments trying to evoke words to explain what it's like being in his company. Finally, and in her famous whisper, she states, "He's a mixture of sensible and sensitive. He's quiet, fair and honest. When you're with Edward, you feel safe. You choose your words carefully. He brings that out in whomever he's with. When you truly admire someone, you don't want to waste their time. You want your time with that person to be meaningful. Just meeting someone you admire, even if there's only a brief connection, it's so thrilling."

    Albee's writing, she goes on to say, "is so brilliant. It's like music. As a singer would sing the notes, if it were music; the actress plays the words. And they're perfect. Edward is so concise and funny. His most serious plays are screamingly funny. You see Virginia Wolf, which could be a tragedy, and there are moments where you're falling about laughing. And so are the characters! The experiences with Edward are so important in my life."

    At a theater panel, a guest pointed out to Albee that sometimes Ms. Seldes isn't always faithful to every word in the script. He replied, "That's okay. She gets enough of the words right."


    Among the list of first-rate actresses who've inhibited his leading ladies, she appears to be his favorite. "None has the extraordinary variety that Marian can bring," he states emphatically. "She always astonishes me."

    While doing the playwright's Three Tall Women and The Play About the Baby, people often asked her "What does the play mean?" Ms. Seldes replied, "It means whatever you took from it when you watched it. No, Edward doesn't spell everything out. Yes, his plays have mysterious qualities. But that's the way it's supposed to be. It isn't all cut and dry. It isn't something you've seen before. And, best of all, it's not something you're going to see again.

    "When we were young, the stories we were told made sense," she continues. "They ended happily. As Oscar Wilde says, 'The good end happily and the bad end unhappily. That is the meaning of fiction.' But, growing older, you get to a twilight zone where the good doesn't always end happily and the wicked maybe do. It's all in the writer's creative slant, and that can be unsettling. Edward's plays can unsettle people."

    Because the theater costs a certain amount and the majority of theatergoers don't casually go anymore, explains Ms. Seldes, "it has become an adventure and it's planned out weeks ahead - hiring the babysitter, what to wear, where to park, where to eat, and so on. So it surprises me when people take tirades out against what they come to see. I wonder to myself, 'You must have researched it a little. You've made all these plans. What were you expecting?'"

    Actors do become intimately involved with their work. "When most actors read a play the first time, it unfolds for them," she points out. "They see the character instantly. You can't not. And they hear the voice. And they feel in their body what their character is."

    She notes that, unlike in England, actors in America rarely have the commodity of time to prepare before going onstage. "It's so vital," says Ms. Seldes, "and yet we never have enough time to go as deeply as we wish. There's always more, especially if it's a wonderfully-written character. That's the blessing of being in a long run - and I've been lucky to be in some. You can keep discovering and improving."

    Now that many consider her the First Lady of the American Theater - - - She quickly interrupts, "Easy, now. Easy! Down, boy!" She cracks up laughing. "Let's not even go there."

    Ms. Seldes reluctantly admits that theater, acting, hasn't always been fun. She spoke of how long it took her to establish a career as leading lady. She described 1974, which was a turning point year for her, "the most terrible time in my whole career.
    She was in her 40s when cast in Shaeffer's Equus. "I wasn't prepared for the public humiliation [British director] John Dexter subjected me to," when during a rehearsal, he yelled "Watch those Jewish hands, Seldes!"


    Over the following days, she "went onstage with my eyes stinging...I felt I must have been wrong all these years about the theater. I had thought it was a place of joy."

    Ms. Seldes, the daughter of Alice Hall and Gilbert Seldes, a respected critic, editor, best-selling author and novelist, playwright, screenwriter, director of television news and educator [founding dean, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania], says her parents couldn't be more different. Her mother was from a long line of "Episcopalian blue-bloods" and her father was Jewish.

    She feels her childhood on East 57th Street was particularly blessed not only because her father knew a virtual Who's Who of that era including Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, e. e. cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein; but also because she got to tag along a great deal of the time with her father to the theater.

    Ms. Seldes vividly recalls that her first show was Billy Rose's Jumbo, which as it turned out was the first show Edward Albee's adoptive parents took him to. They were born the same year.

    At age 14, she was "totally bitten by the bug" on seeing Chekhov's The Three Sisters, starring and produced by Katharine Cornell and directed by husband, Guthrie McClintic. It featured Ruth Gordon, then in her 40s.

    "I'd never experienced anything like that," recalls Ms. Seldes, "and after graduation from the Dalton School I decided against college in favor of going into theater. That didn't go over well with my parents, but I was going to be an actress!"

    Her first marriage in 1953 was to successful writer/TV producer Julian Claman, the father of her only child, Katharine [who's a writers and named after Ms. Cornell]. Claman, who was 10 years older, has been described by Ms. Seldes' brother Timothy as charming but also "complex, neurotic and sometimes abusive." Her daughter has said that her father was "difficult and violent." He died at age 50. They were divorced at the time.

    It was 29 years before she remarried [1990], to Garson Kanin, the screenwriter of numerous classics of Hollywood's Golden Age, playwright, director and widower of her by then good friend Ruth Gordon, who was over 15 years older than her husband.

    She pointed out that she'd known Kanin for years and even worked with him. They began as friends, and soon were inseparable. Many times he asked her to marry him, "but I felt shy about saying yes. Garson's [42-year] marriage to Ruth was so important, as was their collaboration. They were so close and he was absolutely devastated when Ruth died [1985]. But I finally said, 'Okay, let's do it' and Garson was the most wonderful companion you could ever dream of. And, of course, witty and stunningly brilliant. We had great fun. But he was also complicated and serious. Getting to know that part of him was wonderful, too."

    Is she complicated? Instead of answering, Ms. Seldes turns the question back: "What do you see?" The writer's reply was: "someone very intelligent, educated and urbane; someone very sure of herself; and someone who has a devilish sense of humor." She remains silent.

    It's often said that Ms. Seldes is "always on" and she doesn't totally disagree. "I don't just come into a room. I want to bring something, to give pleasure. You don't go through life merely walking in and out of doors. You have an objective."

    aaaMSRetrospective.jpgClockwise: On Broadway, Ondine [1954]; TV's Perry Mason [1958]; in Deathtrap with John Wood and Victor Garber; Three Tall Women [1994] with Myra Carter, left, and Jordan Baker; as Vera Charles with Charles Busch as Auntie Mame in benefit reading [1998]; with Toby Stephens [son of Maggie Smith], Ring Round the Moon [1999]; with Brian Murray, The Play About the Baby [2001]; in her grand opera debut at the Metropolitan, The Daughter of the Regiment. aaCaption.jpg

    Even Loretta Young would envy Marian Seldes' regal way of sweeping into a room. It's
    as if she'd been a veteran ballet or ballroom dancer. Her posture, those courtly curtsies, those "Darling!"s, "Sweetheart!"s, and "My pet!"s, and that kiss on the warmly embraced hand, lead some to believe she's not sincere. However, you might also notice that she pays rapt attention when being spoken to. She's not looking in four directions to size up the room or to find her next conversation.

    Brian Murray comments, "Marian always makes you feel like you are the most important person in the room, yet, when you get to know her, there's absolutely nothing grand about her."

    Though legions of fans may have only a momentary "sweep by" with Ms. Seldes, she makes such a warm and gracious impression that they speak of it as if they've had an intimate candlelit evening with her.

    "People love Marian, and for good reason," notes Terrence McNally. "There are no bad stories about her." As far as her craft is concerned, he says, "She's more than a survivor - she's a leader of the movement to make sure theater never goes away."

    When Ms. Seldes is informed that some people are intimidated by her, she seems stunned. "Intimidated? By me? I hope not. I have noticed how very polite people are with me. They approach hesitantly and say, 'Miss Seldes, I don't mean to bother you.' It isn't a bother. Oh, no. Not at all.

    "One's weaknesses are not so fascinating," she adds, "so I try to give an impression of confidence and well-being. To my way of thinking, that puts the other person at ease. But I'm just as nervous and anxious as the next person. When someone meets me, I'm thrilled. It means they're interested in my work. It means I've communicated something to them. Live. Alive! Not on a piece of film. You've been with that person. I always say, 'Darling, it's the part.' They don't want to hear that. They want to think it's me. It's not."

    From Novice to Broadway Star

    Studied acting under renowned acting instructor Sanford Meisner, New York's Neighborhood Playhouse;
    1949, Featured in TV production, Macbeth;
    1954, Film debut, The Lonely Night, a TV docudrama produced by the U. S. Public Health Service on mental health;
    1963, Obie Award, The Ginger Man;
    1967 to 1991, faculty member, Juilliard School of Drama, where her students included Christine Baranski, Kelsey Grammer, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Patti LuPone, Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams;
    1967 Tony Award, Best Featured Actress, Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance;
    1970s, Recurring guest on CBS Radio's Mystery Theater;
    1971, Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations, Actress (Play), Father's Day;
    1977, Obie Award, Isadora Duncan Sleeps with the Russian Navy;
    1978, Co-starred in Deathtrap, never missing a performance over five years - an achievement that won her entry into the Guinness Book of World Records;
    1978, Tony Award nomination, Best Featured Actress, Play, Deathtrap;
    1978, Published autobiography, The Bright Lights;
    1983, Outer Critics Circle Award, Painting Churches;
    1994, Co-starred in Albee's Three Tall Women, Outer Critics Circle Award;
    1996, Inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame - "One of the very proudest moments of my life."
    1998, Drama Desk nomination, Outstanding Featured Actress, Ivanov;
    1999, Tony Award nomination, Best Actress, Play, for the revival of Ring Round the Moon;
    2001, Drama Desk nomination, Outstanding Actress (Play), Albee's The Play about the Baby;
    2000, The Madge Evans & Sidney Kingsley Award for Excellence in Theater;
    2001, Obie Award for Sustained Achievement.
    2001 and 2005, Fordham University faculty;
    2003, Nominated for her fifth Tony Award, Best Featured Actress, Play, for LCT's Dinner at Eight [a last-minute replacement for ailing Dorothy Loudon in the role of Carlotta Vance];
    2003, Edwin Booth Award;
    2004, The first annual Seldes-Kanin Fellowship Awards;
    2007, She co-stars opposite Angela Lansbury in Duece,
    her last Broadway role to date.

    Stage roles:
    For a complete listing, visit www.IBDB.com and www.IOBDB.com.

    Film highlights:
    Affliction, The Big Fisherman, Celebrity, Crime and Punishment U.S.A., Digging to China, The Greatest Story Ever Told [a memorable Herodias], The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag, The Haunting, Home Alone 3, Leatherheads, The Light in the Forest, Mona Lisa Smile, Tom and Huck, Town and Country, and The True Story of Jesse James.

    TV role highlights:
    Club House, Cosby, General Electric Theater, Gertrude Stein and a Companion, Gunsmoke, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Law & Order, Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote, Othello [Emilia to Walter Matthau's Iago], Perry Mason Remember WENN, Truman, and Wings

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.