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Celeste Holm, an Oscar winner for the landmark drama Gentleman’s Agreement who played Bette Davis‘ best friend in All About Eve and the girl who can’t say no in Broadway sensation Oklahoma!, died Sunday in New York. She was 95.
The Associated Press reported that Holm had been hospitalized about two weeks ago with dehydration after a fire broke out in actor Robert De Niro‘s apartment in her Central Park West building. She had asked her husband, opera singer Frank Basile, on Friday to bring her home, and she spent her final days with him, other relatives and close friends by her side, said great-niece Amy Phillips.
Holm died around 3:30 a.m., Phillips said. “I think she wanted to be here, in her home, among her things, with people who loved her,” she told the AP.
The blue-eyed blonde won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing a sympathetic fashion editor who meets journalist Gregory Peck in 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, one of the first films to tackle anti-Semitism. Her screen test for the drama was so powerful that director Elia Kazan used the footage in the movie, which was nominated for eight Oscars and won three.
The Fox contract player also received supporting-actress nominations for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) — she’s the one who introduces ingenue Eve (Anne Baxter) to aging Broadway star Margo (Davis) — and Come to the Stable (1949), in which she starred as a tennis-playing French nun.
(Holm made history as one of four women — including Davis, Baxter and Thelma Ritter — from the film to earn all the Oscar actress noms that year. None of them won.)
Once suspended by Fox for refusing other roles she felt were beneath her, she shocked Hollywood by buying out her contract after All About Eve to return to Broadway.
The native New Yorker, an only child, attended 14 schools growing up, including the Lycee Victor Duryui in Paris when her mother, a painter, was there for an exhibition. She studied ballet for 10 years.
After appearing as Mary L. with Gene Kelly in the Broadway revival of William Saroyan‘s The Time of Your Life in 1939, Holm played man-crazy Ado Annie Carnes in the original 1943 production of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! (Gloria Grahame played the part in the 1955 film version.)
Holm told The Hollywood Reporter in February 2011 that when she first came west in 1936 as a teenaged Broadway actress, she drove to the top of Mulholland and said, “I wonder if I’ll ever make it here.” Ten years later and on a Fox contract, she was back.
“What’s a New York actress like you doing in a place like this?” Danny Kaye asked over lunch. The answer — “I want to make pictures that make a difference” — had Kaye laughing so hard he forgot to pick up the check.
She cornered director Anatole Litvak in an elevator to persuade him to cast her in The Snake Pit (1948), which dealt with mental illness. Holm also contributed the memorable voiceover in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and starred in such films as The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956) and the 1991 play I Hate Hamlet.
She has roles in two films not yet released, Driving Me Crazy and College Debts.
In the 1990s, Holm and Gerald McRaney starred in CBS’ Promised Land, a spinoff of Touched by an Angel, and is remembered as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, a 1965 telefilm. She earned a Daytime Emmy nomination for Loving in 1987 and also had recurring roles through the years on such TV series as Christine Cromwell, Falcon Crest, Jesse, Archie Bunker’s Place and Nancy.
Holm also was known for her untiring charity work — at one time she served on nine boards — and was a board member emeritus of the National Mental Health Association.
She was once president of the Creative Arts Rehabilitation Center, which treats emotionally disturbed people using arts therapies. Over the years, she raised $20,000 for UNICEF by charging 50 cents apiece for autographs.
President Ronald Reagan appointed her to a six-year term on the National Council on the Arts in 1982. In New York, she was active in the Save the Theatres Committee and was once arrested during a vigorous protest against the demolition of several theaters.
Late in life, Holm was engaged in a bitter, multiyear legal battle that pitted her sons Ted and Daniel against her and Basile, a former waiter whom she married in 2004 and was more than 45 years her junior. The court fight over investments and inheritance wiped away much of her savings and left her dependent on Social Security. The actress and her two sons no longer spoke, and she was sued for overdue maintenance and legal fees on her Manhattan apartment.
Neither of her sons was there in her Central Park West apartment when she died, Phillips told CNN.
Holm married five times; her husbands included director Ralph Nelson (the director of 1960s films Charly and Lillies of the Field) and actor Robert Wesley Addy, whom she met when they co-starred in the 1960 Broadway production of Invitation to a March. They were married for 35 years until his death in 1996. Survivors also include three grandchildren.
The family requests that any memorial donations be made to UNICEF or to The Lillian Booth Actors Home of The Actors Fund in Englewood, N.J.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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