Sylvia Miles, Scene-Stealer in 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Farewell, My Lovely,' Dies at 94
The free-wheeling actress and fabled New York partygoer received Oscar nominations for her brief appearances in those films.
Sylvia Miles, the uninhibited actress whose 14 minutes of screen time as a poodle-owning hooker in Midnight Cowboy and a boozy broad in Farewell, My Lovely was enough to land her a pair of supporting Oscar nominations, died Wednesday. She was 94.
Publicist Mauricio Padilha told The New York Times that Miles died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital in Manhattan. Her friend Geraldine Smith told the New York Post that she had been in declining health and had recently left a nursing home because "she didn’t want to die there."
In one of her most notorious roles in a career filled with them, Miles starred as a fading Hollywood movie star in Heat (1972), a satire of Sunset Boulevard from Andy Warhol's Warhol Factory. She appears naked and shares a steamy love scene with the hunky, much-younger Joe Dallesandro in the movie, directed by Paul Morrissey. Plus, she claimed to have made up every line of her dialogue.
The inimitable actress also played a crazed German lesbian zombie in Michael Winner's The Sentinel (1977); a fortune teller, Madame Zena, who gets murdered, in Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981); a Jewish matchmaker who tries to set up Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey (1988); and a hot-headed, vulgar landlord of a strip joint in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales (2007).
Miles also made quite the impression as Charlie Sheen's aggressive real estate agent in Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987), then reprised the role for the 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Away from the cameras, the free-wheeling Miles was renowned for dumping a plate of food — said to contain quiche Lorraine, steak tartare, brie and potato salad — on the head of John Simon in 1973 after the New York magazine critic called her a "party girl and gate-crasher" in a negative review of her off-Broadway performance as a loopy ad exec in Nellie Toole & Co.
"I have always had the temperament of an actress," she told People in 1976, "which is just an excuse for volatile behavior."
Miles did love to go to parties, no doubt, and pretty much every story about her over the years includes the joke that she would even attend the opening of an envelope. "I get invited because I'm fun," she said. "I have a good sense of humor. I look good. I'm not bad to have at a party."
"It seems as if she is always there, at all of the openings and the parties and the screenings, her thick streaked blond lion's mane slightly disheveled, her dresses cut low, a handsome young escort at her side," is how The New York Times described the scene surrounding her in the '70s:
"'There's Sylvia!' the paparazzi shout at the sight of her. She flashes an enormous smile for them and sometimes even strikes a rather dramatic pose. Snap, snap, snap go the Nikons."
Miles was born in New York's Greenwich Village on Sept. 9, 1924. Her father was a furniture maker. She studied at the Actors Studio and made her professional acting debut off-Broadway in 1956 in Harold Robbins' A Stone for Danny Fisher.
Two years later, she appeared in a pilot for what would become The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing the part of the sassy comedy writer Sally Rogers that went to Rose Marie when the Carl Reiner sitcom was recast and picked up by CBS.
Miles then had small roles in Murder, Inc. (1960) and Parrish (1961) before bowing on Broadway in 1963's The Riot Act, starring Linda Lavin.
Although Miles was only onscreen for about six minutes in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969), her raunchy portrayal of an aging, poodle-owning hooker named Cass who, on her day off, gets it on with Texas dishwasher Joe Buck (Jon Voight) was an attention-getter.
"We rehearsed our scene alone for 10 days," Miles recalled in a 2006 interview with The Scotsman. "Jon would come to my apartment on Central Park South dressed in cowboy hat, jeans and boots. My neighbors thought I had this cowboy toyboy. If only!"
She added, "We came up with many of our own ideas for the scene, including the TV remote crushed beneath us on the bed, as we 'have sex' and the TV zaps from program to program. John Schlesinger wanted us to make our own imaginative contributions. He loved it if you came in with interesting ideas."
Miles played another hardened woman, Jessie Halstead Florian — one who is hiding a big secret from the bourbon-bearing gumshoe Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) — in Dick Richards' Farewell, My Lovely (1975). She was seen for about eight minutes in that one.
A year later, she portrayed Maxine Faulk opposite Richard Chamberlain in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana.
Roger Ebert had high praise for Miles in his review of Heat. "Morrissey has assembled an outrageous cast, given them an impossible situation and then all but dared them to act their way out of it. Incredibly, Sylvia Miles does," he wrote.
"She handles this material in the only possible way, by taking it perfectly seriously. If she's a semi-retired actress having an affair with an androgynous robot, so be it: The robot has never met anyone like HER before."
Miles' film résumé also included Terror in the City (1964); Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971); Who Killed Mary Whats'ername? (1971); 92 in the Shade (1975); the Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under the Sun (1982), playing James Mason's wife; Morrissey's Spike of Bensonhurst (1988); She-Devil (1989); Denise Calls Up (1995); and The Boys Behind the Desk (2000).
She parlayed a lifetime of notoriety into a 2002 guest-star turn on Sex and the City, in which her character, a wacky old lady, laces her chocolate ice cream with lithium.
A great chess player, Miles was married three times: to William Miles (1948-50), actor Gerald Price (1952-58) and radio personality Ted Brown (1963-70). All ended in divorce.
In 1981, Miles starred off-Broadway in the one-woman show It's Me, Sylvia!, set inside a facsimile of that tiny 19th-floor Central Park South apartment that she famously crammed with photographs, artifacts, clippings and tchotchkes.
"People disappoint you," Miles told People in 1988. "Lovers disappoint you. But theatrical memorabilia stays with you, as long as you keep it under clear plastic."