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Carole Shelley, the Tony Award-winning actress who portrayed one of the giddy Pigeon sisters in the stage, film and television versions of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, has died. She was 79.
Shelley died Friday of cancer at her home in Manhattan, her friend, Barrie Kreinik, told The Hollywood Reporter.
The actress also was known for originating the role of Crage Hall headmistress Madame Morrible in the Broadway sensation Wicked in 2003.
Shelley won her Tony in 1979 for playing Mrs. Kendal, the gracious real-life English actress who befriends John Merrick, in the best play winner The Elephant Man.
“I’ve learned a lot in playing her,” Shelley, who started out as a comic actress, said in a 1979 interview with The New York Times. “So much of what I’ve been working toward in the past few years — the effort to achieve stillness, spareness, clarity in my acting — seems to have come together in Mrs. Kendal. She’s been quite an extraordinary influence in my life.”
Shelley also was nominated for Tonys for her work in 1975’s Absurd Person Singular, 1987’s Stepping Out and, for playing the bawdy Grandma, in 2009’s best musical winner, Billy Elliot.
The London native made her Broadway debut in 1965 in The Odd Couple as Gwendolyn Pigeon, who, with her sister, Cecily (Monica Evans), go on a double date in the apartment of their downstairs bachelor neighbors, Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) and Felix Ungar (Art Carney). Everyone starts out wanting to have a good time, but fussbudget Felix, despondent that his wife has left him, mucks it all up.
Simon, in London to look after a production of his musical Little Me, had embarked on a search for his Pigeon sisters in Britain because he couldn’t find anyone in New York to play them.
The attractive ladies then reprised their roles for the 1968 movie adaptation at Paramount that starred Matthau and Jack Lemmon and then again for four 1970 episodes (all in the first season, including the pilot) of the ABC sitcom that featured Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as the mismatched roommates.
“We were Pigeons for quite some time,” Shelley once said. “We got to look like each other after a while.”
It is quite rare for any actor to play the same role on Broadway, in the movies and on television.
Shelley and Evans, now 78, also did voiceover work for the Disney animated films The Aristocats (1970) — they were prim and proper English geese — and Robin Hood (1973), in which Shelley was Lady Kluck, the lady-in-waiting to Evans’ Maid Marion.
The two became quite close, and Evans served as Shelley’s maid of honor. They didn’t see each other for two decades until April, when they were brought to Hollywood for a 50th anniversary screening of The Odd Couple at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Born on Aug. 16, 1939, Shelley wanted to be a ballet dancer but switched to acting after she broke a foot. Her mother was an opera singer and her father a composer.
She first appeared on the big screen in Edward Dmytryk’s Give Us This Day (1949) and went on to roles in No, My Darling Daughter (1961), The Boston Strangler (1968), The Super (1991), Quiz Show (1994), The Road to Wellville (1994), Jungle 2 Jungle (1997) and Bewitched (2005).
She also showed up on television on The Avengers, The Cosby Show and Frasier.
Shelley’s big break in musical theater came in the mid-1990s when Hal Prince asked her to replace Elaine Stritch as Parthy Ann Hawks in a 1994 revival of Show Boat. In 2002, she portrayed Fraulein Schneider in a revival of Cabaret.
A full-time resident of the U.S. since 1969, Shelley was last seen on Broadway in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which debuted at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 2013.
Survivors include several cousins and her godson, Mark, according to Kreinik.
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