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Lenka Peterson, the Tony-nominated actress and charter member of The Actors Studio who also worked in films including Panic in the Streets, The Phenix City Story and Dragnet, has died. She was 95.
Peterson died Sept. 24 in her sleep at her home in Roxbury, Connecticut, her family announced. Survivors include her daughter, actress Glynnis O’Connor (Ode to Billy Joe, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble).
Peterson appeared in 10 Broadway productions over a span of nearly 40 years and received her Tony nom for best featured actress in a musical in 1985 for Quilters.
She also acted in Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp in 1952, starred opposite Shelley Winters in 1956’s Girls of Summer and worked alongside Lillian Gish in 1960 in the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Way Home.
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Peterson made her film debut in the Elia Kazan thriller Panic in the Streets (1950) opposite Richard Widmark and portrayed the wife of a crusading attorney (Richard Kiley) bent on cleaning up corruption in his Alabama town in Phil Karlson’s gritty The Phenix City Story (1955).
Later, she played a motorcycle-riding grandmother in the comedy remake of Dragnet (1987).
A daughter of Swedish and Hungarian immigrants, Lenka Isacson was born on Oct. 16, 1925, in Omaha. After attending the University of Iowa, she traveled with the USO to entertain the troops in Japan and the Philippines during World War II, then came to New York to pursue a theater career.
At The Actors Studio, Peterson studied with Lee Strasberg, Arthur Penn and Robert Lewis. “We felt like The Actors Studio was a place where we were free, where we could say anything and do anything and share anything and not have to worry that it’s going to affect us financially,” she once said.
Peterson bowed on Broadway in 1947 in Bathsheba, starring Gloria Swanson and James Mason, then acted on the Great White Way three more times before the decade was out. She went on to appear many times off-Broadway and in regional theater productions throughout the U.S.
Peterson also worked on the daytime dramas Young Doctor Malone, Search for Tomorrow, Another World, Ryan’s Hope and General Hospital and showed up on episodes of The Inner Sanctum, Robert Montgomery Presents, Route 66, The Rookies, Quincy M.E., Kate & Allie, Hill Street Blues and Law & Order, among many other shows.
She assisted her daughter with supporting turns in two telefilms: 1975’s Someone I Touched and 1984’s Why Me?
Her film résumé included Take Care of My Little Girl (1951), Black Like Me (1964), Homer (1970), Lifeguard (1976), Jeffrey (1995) and the remake of All the Kings Men (2006), her final onscreen credit.
When Peterson noticed that that her kids’ elementary school had just one afterschool activity, she started a dramatics club. Three hundred students came out for the first meeting.
That club grew into the Westchester Young Actors Theater, which put on plays for a decade. She then continued her theater work with children in Connecticut after she and her late husband, Daniel O’Connor, moved there in 1979. They co-authored the 2006 book Kids Take the Stage: Helping Young People Discover the Creative Outlet of Theater.
She also directed and taught acting for five years at the Metropolitan Opera Studio.
“Everything used to be scattered — doing the soaps, teaching, directing the children, having dinner ready and fighting for every 15 minutes,” she told The New York Times in 1984.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include her sons, Kevin, Brian, Darren and Sean; daughters-in-law Eileen and Jolene; sons-in-law Douglas and Josh; and grandchildren Daniel, Lindsay, Hana and Jadie.
Her husband of 67 years, an executive producer of NBC News documentaries from the 1950s through the ’80s, died in 2015 at age 93.
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