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One of the foremost stage actresses of her generation, Marian Seldes, died Monday at her New York home after a long illness. She was 86.
“It is with deep sadness that I share the news that my dear sister Marian Seldes has died,” said Timothy Seldes, making the announcement. “She was an extraordinary woman whose great love of the theater, teaching and acting was surpassed only by her deep love for her family.”
Long considered Broadway royalty, Seldes was nominated for five Tony Awards over the course of her six-decade career. She won for featured actress in a play with her first nomination, for Edward Albee‘s A Delicate Balance in 1967, and had a long association with the playwright, appearing in productions of The Play About the Baby, Tiny Alice, Counting the Ways and Three Tall Women.
Known for her regal bearing, her deep, mellifluous voice and sly humor, Seldes in her best performances managed to combine grand imperiousness with warmth and charm.
In 2010, she was presented with a special Lifetime Achievement Tony, surprising the audience at Radio City Music Hall by accepting the honor without a single word, instead simply placing her hand over her heart. “They said to keep it short, so I decided I would just say nothing,” Seldes later explained.
Her other Tony nominations were for best actress in a play for Father’s Day in 1971 and Ring Round the Moon in 1999; and for featured actress in a play for Deathtrap in 1978 and Dinner at Eight in 2003. She was elected to the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1995.
As a testament to her rigorous professional discipline, Seldes’ name was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records after she played a four-year run in Deathtrap, Ira Levin‘s smash-hit comedy thriller, without missing a single one of the production’s almost 1,800 performances.
She made her Broadway debut in 1948 in Robinson Jeffers‘ adaptation of Medea, starring Judith Anderson and John Gielgud, who also directed the production. Other significant Broadway work included Enid Bagnold‘s The Chalk Garden in 1955, Tennessee Williams‘ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore in 1963, Peter Shaffer‘s Equus in 1974, Anton Chekhov‘s Ivanov in 1997, and Neil Simon‘s 45 Seconds from Broadway in 2001.
Seldes’ final Broadway role was as a former tennis pro opposite her friend Angela Lansbury in Terrence McNally‘s Deuce, in 2007. She also appeared frequently in Off-Broadway productions, her notable successes including the Tina Howe play Painting Churches in 1983.
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Outside the theater, Seldes worked extensively in movies, television and radio. Her big-screen roles ranged from The Greatest Story Ever Told through Home Alone 3 and Mona Lisa Smile to The Visitor. On TV, she played Emily Bronte in the 1952 telemovie Our Sister Emily, and Eleanor Roosevelt in Truman in 1995. She also appeared in countless series, starting in the 1950s with parts in Kraft Theatre, Playhouse 90, Gunsmoke and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
More recently, Seldes played the title character’s eccentric aunt in Murphy Brown, the mother of Chris Noth‘s Mr. Big in Sex and the City, and made a 2011 appearance on Nurse Jackie.
Seldes taught acting for many years at the prestigious Juilliard School and later became an adjunct professor at Fordham University. Her students over the years included Robin Williams, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, William Hurt, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Reeve, Kevin Spacey, Patti LuPone, Viola Davis, Christine Baranski and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Seldes studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner and dance with Martha Graham; she was mentored by one of the previous generation’s greats, Katharine Cornell, for whom she named her daughter. Seldes published two books, the memoir The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life and the novel Time Together.
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One of the most gracious members of the Broadway community, Seldes gave generously of her time to theater-related institutions, and for many years was a regular presenter at the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.
“It is Seldes’ blend of Old World manners and youthful exuberance, her journeyman work ethic, paired with a sense of privilege at being in the theater, that has made her a legendary figure within it,” wrote Alex Witchel in a 2010 New York Times Magazine profile. “In the mirrored bubble of show business, where people see only themselves, she sees everyone else. More than that, she celebrates them.”
Born and raised in Manhattan, Seldes was the daughter of American writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes and socialite Alice Wadhams Hall. Her first marriage, to television producer Julian Claman, ended in divorce. She was later married to celebrated playwright, screenwriter and director Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday), from 1990 until his death nine years later.
As well as her daughter and brother, Seldes is survived by three grandsons, a niece, a nephew and a grandnephew.
In accordance with her wishes, no funeral or memorial service will be held. However, Broadway theater marquee lights will be dimmed in her honor for one minute on Wednesday at 7:45pm EST. Donations in her name may be made to the Marian Seldes Drama Scholarship at Juilliard.
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