Zoe Caldwell, winner of four Tony Awards, is dead at 86

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Zoe Caldwell, winner of four Tony Awards, is dead at 86
Zoe Caldwell in her dressing room at the Helen Hayes Theater while appearing in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” in New York, circa 1968. Caldwell, who won Tony Awards — four in all — in the 1960s, ’80s and ’90s, the last for portraying the opera star Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Terence McNally’s study of the twilight of the singer’s career, died on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, at her home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., in Westchester County. She was 86. Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Zoe Caldwell, who won Tony Awards — four in all — in the 1960s, ’80s and ’90s, the last for portraying the opera star Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s study of the twilight of the singer’s career, died Sunday at her home in Pound Ridge, New York, in Westchester County. She was 86.

Her son Charlie Whitehead said through a spokeswoman that the cause was Parkinson’s disease.

Caldwell, born in Australia, began her acting career in that country; joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in England in 1959; and then, after a stop at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, was part of the inaugural season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1963.

In 1966 she was in a bill of two short Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway, combined under the title “Slapstick Tragedy.” The run lasted only seven performances, but she made an impression: She won a Tony Award for best featured actress in a play.

A more enduring performance came two years later when she starred on Broadway in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Jay Allen’s play based on a Muriel Sparks novel about an imperious teacher in the 1930s.

“Miss Caldwell flounces onto the stage like a sparrow with illusions of grandeur,” Clive Barnes wrote in his review in The New York Times. “She is surrounded with an air of ineffable confidence, and her lilting Scots accent picks over her consonants with the languid deliberation of a dowager picking over a box of candy.”

The performance won her the Tony for best actress in a play. She won the same award in 1982 for her portrayal of the title character in “Medea,” directed by her husband, Robert Whitehead, whom she had married in 1968, when he was the producer of “Miss Jean Brodie.”

Caldwell’s screen credits included “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” in 2011, but she worked only occasionally in television and films. That was by choice.

“The business of acting is sharing an experience,” she told The Boston Globe in 1986.

“Television and movies tend to cut off the element of sharing,” she continued. “Images flicker across the screen. Everything is mechanical. Everything is dead. Actors on the stage are alive. The audience is alive.”

Limiting her exposure on the large and small screens, she said, helped her be a better actress, because it let her immerse herself in the world.

“Acting is reflecting on the observations of life,” she told The Globe. “I’m not a television face. I’m not known. I can walk around the streets of New York, ride the buses, observe life in action. I like to absorb everything I see.”

Zoe (pronounced “zo”) Ada Caldwell was born on Sept. 14, 1933, in Melbourne. Her father, Edgar, was a plumber, and her mother, Zoe (Hivon) Caldwell, was a taxi dancer, someone from whom dance-hall customers could buy a dance. But at the time, in the midst of the Great Depression, her father was out of work, and with an older child already in the house, the pregnancy had come at a difficult moment.

“Mum’s friends told her that she had no choice but to use the coat hanger,” Caldwell wrote in “I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey” (2001), “but Mum thought it might be fun to have me around, whoever I was, so she put her coat on the hanger and I was born.”

By age 9 she was acting in a production of “Peter Pan.” By the mid-1950s she was performing with Melbourne’s Union Theater Repertory Company. A particularly famous character to emerge from that time is one she didn’t play.

She was in a touring production of “Twelfth Night” with, among others, a student actor named Barry Humphries. At each town the troupe would be greeted by the chairwoman of the local arts council or some similar matron, and on the bus rides from one place to another Humphries began improvising what he thought the woman in the next town would say, using a character he called Edna. A director suggested he create a sketch for that character, whose name became Dame Edna Everage. Humphries’ idea was for Caldwell to play the role.

“I read it and I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t be interested in doing that; I wouldn’t know how to make that funny,’ ” Caldwell said in an interview with the CUNY-TV series “Women in Theater” in 2006. “ ‘You should do it.’ And he did.”

Other tellings of the origin of the character differ in some details, but one thing is undeniable: Humphries went on to make a career of playing Dame Edna.

Caldwell often said that she didn’t like to remain with one acting company long; changing companies, she said, kept her from growing too comfortable and forced her to “see again.”

After arriving at the Guthrie, she drew critical praise for her roles opposite Hume Cronyn in “The Miser” in 1963 and opposite Jessica Tandy, Cronyn’s wife, in “The Way of the World” in 1965. The couple, she said, introduced her to Whitehead, a recent widower.

In addition to working with her on “Miss Jean Brodie,” Whitehead produced or directed other shows in which she appeared, including the 1986 Broadway production of “Lillian,” about Lillian Hellman, which he directed.

In 1995 he was a producer of “Master Class,” in which Caldwell gave, Vincent Canby wrote in The Times, “what could be one of the funniest, most moving and gaudiest performances of this season and, perhaps, of her career.”

Whitehead died in 2002. In addition to her son Charlie, Caldwell’s survivors include another son, Sam Whitehead, and two grandchildren.

“Master Class” opens with the Callas character hectoring the audience, saying it’s not her fault if she can’t be heard, complaining that the theater is too hot and the lights are too bright. For one Wednesday night audience in February 1996, it took a moment to realize that the rant had gone off the rails and that Caldwell was in fact disoriented. She collapsed and was brought to a hospital. She later attributed the scare to oysters she had eaten after that day’s matinee.

“Anything can happen in the theater,” she told The Times. “That’s why it’s so dangerous. I always have had oysters between matinees and the evening performance — high protein and quick energy. But I’ve gotten sick two times before, so now it’s over.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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