Dorothy McGuire, stage, screen star, dies at 85

Oscar-nommed thesp appeared in 'Gentleman's Agreement,' 'Tree'

Dorothy McGuire, Oscar-nommed actress whose appealing warmth, beauty and soft spoken charm made her a popular film star in the 1940s and ’50s, surrounded by a successful legit career on either side of her movie one, died Thursday evening of heart failure at St. John’s Health Center, Santa Monica. She was 85.

She had broken her leg three weeks ago and then developed arrhythmia.

From 1943 to the 1960s, the stage-trained, Omaha-born actress was a favorite leading lady to such stars as Robert Young, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper, often playing the gentle, understanding wife. She became a star in her first film, “Claudia,” based on the Rose Franken play in which she had appeared for a year on Broadway and another on the road.

McGuire’s controlled, well-crafted portrayals won critical praise but no Academy recognition until 1947, when she was nominated as best actress from her role as Peck’s wife in the “Gentleman’s Agreement,” one of the first films to attack anti-Semitism in America. It won the Oscar as best picture.

She went from hit to hit during that period starring in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947).

A sampling of her later successes included “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954), “Friendly Persuasion” (1956) where she played the Quaker wife of Gary Cooper, “Old Yeller” (1957), “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960) and as the Virgin Mary in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965).

Throughout her career, McGuire retained a low profile, not seeking publicity but not avoiding it. Interviewers despaired of eliciting any controversy from her. Scandal never touched her life. She had a long, happy marriage to John Swope, who helped found an airline and later became an acclaimed photographer for Life magazine. They had two children and traveled the world on his photographic assignments.

McGuire was born and raised in Omaha and grew up with theater-loving parents, including a lawyer father, who encouraged her ambition to become an actress.

Her stage debut came in 1930, when Omaha-bred Henry Fonda, who was beginning to have success on Broadway, returned to his hometown for an engagement in James Barrie’s “A Kiss for Cinderella.” The 13-year-old Dorothy, a member of the Omaha Community Playhouse, was chosen to play the role opposite him. Visiting New York actress Violet Heming said of her: “The girl is a born actress. She reads lines with a natural intuition, not as a child who has been coached. She is like a breath of spring.”

She attended a convent school in Indianapolis and junior college in Massachusetts, appeared in summer stock in Maine, then sought acting jobs in New York. After one flop play, she understudied Martha Scott in “Our Town.” Scott remained healthy for six months, then moved to Hollywood. McGuire inherited the leading role.

She toured with John Barrymore in “My Dear Children” at a time when the fabulous actor was drinking heavily and losing his memory. He chided McGuire when she tried to prompt him in the lines. But when she left the play, he recited to the audience a sonnet he had written to her.

She next appeared in a Benny Goodman swing revue, then modeled tennis dresses. She failed an audition for Philip Barry’s new play, “Liberty Jones” when it quickly folded.

Out of work, she learned that producers were seeking an actress for the title role in the feature “Claudia.”

David O. Selznick signed her to a film contract and bought the film rights to “Claudia” as well. Since he was in a producing hiatus, he sold the rights to 20th Century-Fox. Joan Fontaine, Loretta Young and Margaret Sullavan tested for the role, as did McGuire. Selznick campaigned for his contract actress, declaring, “Her personality became the personality of Claudia, as though Claudia were an actual living person.” Studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck agreed.

She veered from the sweet roles only once, when she played an older woman who seduces Guy Madison in the 1946 “Till the End of Time.” She recalled in 1987: “Everyone was shocked, and film was a failure. I went right back to playing nice girls and faithful wives.”

In later years, McGuire returned to the theater in such plays as “Night of the Iguana,” “Another Part of the Forest” and “Winesberg, Ohio.” She, Peck and others founded the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse and acted in plays there.

She often guested on TV series notably in the 1976-78 movie and series of “Little Women” and the 1976-77 hit “Rich Man, Poor Man.” Additional TV credits included “Highway to Heaven,” “St. Elsewhere” and “The Love Boat.”

In addition to her daughter, McGuire is survived by her son, Mark Swope, a photographer.

Services will be private.

In lieu of flowers, family suggests donations in McGuire’s be made to Center Theatre Group or the Lange Foundation.

(News services contributed to this story).

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