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Elaine Stritch, the tough and salty broad whose throaty singing voice and torrid Broadway performances made her a New York legend, died on Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Mich., The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed. She was 89.
The four-time Tony Award nominee and three-time Emmy Award winner battled diabetes for decades and last year broke her hip and pelvis in separate spills. In the spring of 2013, Stritch moved from her apartment at the Carlyle hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan into a condo in Birmingham to be closer to her nieces and nephews.
With her husky voice, long, skinny legs, puffed tresses and take-no-prisoners swagger, Stritch through six decades in show business put forth a persona that was brash and domineering. Her vocalizations, much like a bellow of horns, were often magical.
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Stritch brought down the house in the 1947 musical Angel in the Wings with her rendition of “Civilization,” popularly known as the “Bongo Bongo Bongo” song, and her performance of Stephen Sondheim‘s “Ladies Who Lunch” as the caustic Joanne in the 1970 Hal Prince musical Company was a reliable showstopper.
The one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty won Broadway’s 2002 Special Theatrical Event Tony Award, and earned her a Drama Desk prize as well. The show was re-created for television, for which Stritch collected the second of her three career Emmys. (The first was for a guest stint on Law & Order, the last for playing Alec Baldwin‘s character’s caustic, overbearing mother Colleen Donaghy on NBC’s 30 Rock.)
She received Tony nominations for her work in Bus Stop (1955), Sail Away (1961), Company (one of the musical’s 14 noms) and A Delicate Balance (1996) and was superb in a 1994 revival of Show Boat. In 2003, she was saluted by New York City as a “living landmark” for her contributions to the Great White Way.
For about eight years, Stritch performed a cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle (she lived upstairs in Room 309 of the Carlyle hotel for about a decade) in which she sang, told anecdotes and cracked jokes. Her last show came in April 2013, just about when the documentary about her, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, premiered downtown at the Tribeca Film Festival.
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Stritch mixed movie roles in with her Broadway work. Twice during the New York run of Bus Stop, she left to act in Paramount pictures released in 1956: The Scarlet Hour, directed by Michael Curtiz, and Three Violent People, in which she starred alongside Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter.
Her performance as diner owner Grace Hoylard in Bus Stop also led to her role of Jennifer Jones‘ friend and Rock Hudson‘s nurse in David O. Selznick‘s melodrama A Farewell to Arms (1957).
Her most recent films included the 2005 releases Monster-in-Law and Romance & Cigarettes (she played James Gandolfini‘s mother in the latter) and a voice role in ParaNorman (2012).
Stritch was born in Detroit on Feb. 2, 1925, the youngest of three girls. A strict Catholic (her cousin was a cardinal in Chicago), she attended an all-girls school for 12 years and then studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in Greenwich Village, where her fellow students included Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau.
She did summer stock and then made her Broadway debut in 1946 in Loco, and also played Kirk Douglas‘ girlfriend in Woman Bites Dog. That was followed the next year by her first big part, coming in Angel in the Wings, where she sang and did comedy sketches.
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After understudying for Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin‘s Call Me Madam, she played Merman’s role of ambassador Sally Adams in a 1952-53 national tour.
In a 1952 Broadway revival of Pal Joey, she did a memorable reading of the amusing “Zip.” Her other noteworthy songs included “You Took Advantage of Me” in On Your Toes (1954) and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” in Sail Away (1961), a play that Noel Coward rewrote for her.
In 1972, Stritch moved to London, where she starred in the West End production of Company. (Her work in the Broadway original was expertly captured by D.A. Pennebaker in the 1970 documentary Company: Original Cast Album.)
Stritch remained in England for about a decade, appearing in such plays as Neil Simon‘s Gingerbread Lady and Tennessee Williams‘ Small Craft Warnings. She toplined the popular British TV series Two’s Company, playing an American writer who bickers with her butler (Donald Sinden), and sparred with Richard Griffiths in another U.K. sitcom, Nobody’s Perfect, an adaptation of the U.S. hit Maude.
(Speaking of Maude: Stritch later was up for the role of Dorothy in the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls but nervously cursed during her audition, and the part went to Maude star Bea Arthur. Years earlier, Jackie Gleason cast her to play Trixie in The Honeymooners but fired her before the series aired).
Stritch’s last turn on Broadway came in 2010 as the wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt (succeeding Angela Lansbury) in the revival of the Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical A Little Night Music.
Her film work included Blake Edwards‘ The Perfect Furlough (1958); Kiss Her Goodbye (1959); September (1987) and Small Time Crooks (2000), both for Woody Allen; Providence (1977) with John Gielgud and Ellen Burstyn; Cocoon: The Return (1988); Cadillac Man (1990); Out to Sea (1997); Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998); and Autumn in New York (2000).
On television in the States, Stritch starred as Shirley Bonne‘s sister in the 1960-61 CBS sitcom My Sister Eileen; played Burstyn’s meddling mom and Megan Mullally‘s grandmother on the 1986-87 ABC comedy The Ellen Burstyn Show; and had recurring roles as a stern schoolteacher on NBC’s The Cosby Show and as Jane Curtin‘s mother on NBC’s Third Rock From the Sun. Those in addition to her recurring role on 30 Rock.
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Stritch did not marry until she was in her late 40s, wedding actor John Bay, whom she met soon after arriving in London. They spent nine years living in the Savoy Hotel. He died of brain cancer in 1982, and they had no children.
Stritch said she almost married actors Ben Gazzara and Gig Young, but “religion always tripped me up,” she told People magazine in 1988. “I couldn’t bring myself to marry outside the Catholic Church or tie the knot with a divorced man.”
She gave up alcohol in 1987 (“I drank a lot and had a ball,” she told People) and only recently returned to drinking now and then.
“Why did I choose the career that I chose?” she asked rhetorically in an interview with THR in April 2013. “I want to be talked about. I want to be written about. I want everything about me! And I don’t make any bones about that. I like it being all about me. And it’s not funny!”
Here’s a toast to Stritch: Watch her perform “Ladies Who Lunch” below.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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