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Jill Clayburgh, whose performance in An Unmarried Woman as a woman who suddenly finds herself single after a divorce reflected the growing women’s liberation movement, died Friday at her home in Lakeville, Conn. She was 66.
The actress, who recently conclued two seasons as the rich matriach of ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, had been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia for 21 years, her husband, playwright David Rabe, told the Associated Press.
She dealt with the disease courageously, quietly and privately, Rabe said, and conducted herself with enormous grace “and made it into an opportunity for her children to grow and be human.”
Clayburgh won an Oscar nomination for 1978’s Woman, directed by Paul Mazursky. And she shared best actress honors at Cannes with Isabelle Huppert for her portrayal of a young, comfortable woman who finds her world is shattered when her husband of surprises her by asking for a divorce.
With willowy good-looks, an edgy verve, as well as singing ability, Clayburgh was a versatile talent with a distinctive style: In 1978, Cue magazine described her “winsome naturalness,” characterized by “…quick movements, glances, shrugs, half-smiles and pensive, revealing expressions.”
Having attracted attention in the 1975 TV movie Hustling, in which she played a prostitute and earned an Emmy nomination, Clayburgh portrayed Carole Lombard opposite James Brolin in 1976’s Gable and Lombard. She teamed with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the screwball mystery Silver Streak and with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in the football comedy Semi-Tough, based on Dan Jenkins’ best-seller. She and Reynolds had a good rapport, and Clayburgh co-starred with him again in 1979’s Starting Over, where she was nominated for a second Oscar for best actress.
She also gravitated toward edgier films, including Bernardo Bertolucci‘s Luna and Costa-Gavra‘s Hanna K. Bertolucci complimented her ability “to move from one extreme to the other in the same shot, be funny and dramatic within the same scene.”
Clayburgh also turned in multiple guest-starring performances on such TV series as Ally McBeal, Leap of Faith, The Practice and Nip/Tuck, for which she earned a second Emmy nomination in 2005.
Clayburgh was born April 30, 1944 in New York City. Her father was a vice president of the Bancroft Bookcloth Company and an opera lover, while her mother was a production secretary to Broadway producer David Merrick.
She attended the exclusive Brearley School and enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, where she became involved in acting after serving as a summer-stock apprentice at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. While in college, Clayburgh starred with friends Robert De Niro and Jennifer Salt in The Wedding Party, an indie film that another friend, Brian De Palma, helped direct.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, she worked for a year as a member of the Charles Street Playhouse repertory company in Boston. While there, Clayburgh formed a romantic attachment with one of the other performers, Al Pacino and they moved in together in New York, where she studied acting with Uta Hagen.
She appeared in several off-Broadway productions, including a couplet of plays with Pacino at the off-Broadway Astor Place Theater: She played in It’s Called the Sugarplum, while he performed in The Indian Wants the Bronx.
Clayburgh made her Broadway debut in 1970 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in The Rothschilds, a musical about a Jewish family that moved from the Frankfurt ghetto to become the richest bankers in Europe. She displayed her vocal talents again in the musical Pippin, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse.
However, she lost a role she coveted — the go-go dancer in Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room— to Madeline Kahn. That experience convinced her that she needed a bigger “Hollywood name,” and so she sought out mainstream roles in film and TV, breaking into film with 1972’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
And though she wasn’t cast in his play, at her try-out she met Rabe, whom she married in 1979.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by three children, actress Lily Rabe, Michael Rabe and stepson Jason Rabe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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