Iron-willed presence infused her film roles

Katharine Hepburn, who holds the all-time Oscar record for actors and whose screen career spanned seven decades, died Sunday afternoon at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn.

She was 96 and had been in declining health for several years.

Famous for her bony, angular frame and high cheekbones, her idiosyncratic diction and her iron-willed opinions, Hepburn molded her personality-style of acting to the demands of stage, screen and television.

In roles such as Jo in the 1933 film “Little Women” and Tracy Lord in 1940 pic “The Philadelphia Story,” she embodied the Yankee spirit as an outspoken, moral, no-nonsense woman whose strong-mindedness may get her in trouble, but whose intelligence would force her to learn from her mistakes.

She was one of a handful of stars whose offscreen persona was as vivid to the public as her roles: athletic, a bit of a loner, used to getting her way, a little eccentric and intensely private. Though her 25-year relationship with actor Spencer Tracy was played down since he was a Catholic and married, the pairing has gained a romanticized aura due to its privacy.

Their onscreen chemistry — they appeared in nine films together — also helped coin a Hollywood cliche: When someone wants to describe an affectionate/contentious male-female duo in a film project, they often try to sell it as “a Tracy-Hepburn relationship.” Rarely do these latter-day scripts live up to the comedies in which they were depicted as two smart, stubborn people who were at odds, though their love was constantly visible under the surface.

Other performers have won two best actor/actress Oscars, and a few have won three, in the leading and supporting categories. However, nobody has matched her four wins — for “Morning Glory” in 1933, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), “The Lion in Winter” (1968) and “On Golden Pond” (1981). Only Meryl Streep has surpassed Hepburn’s 12 acting nominations.

Fellow Oscar-winner and “Dinner” co-star Sidney Poitier said Hepburn was “a remarkable human being” and working with her on the movie was the “greatest experience I’ve ever had working as an actor … I was between two giants (the other was Spencer Tracy) who were creating the most creative energy which helped enhance what little talent I have.”

In 1973 Hepburn presented the Irving G. Thalberg Award to producer Lawrence Weingarten. It was the only time she attended the Oscar ceremonies. Hepburn told Dick Cavett in the ’70s that she never wanted to go in case she would lose, quoting her father as saying his daughter would never go to any large gathering unless she could be the corpse or the bride.

“I think every actress in the world looked up to her with a kind of reverence and a sense of, ‘Oh boy, if only I could be like her,’ ” Elizabeth Taylor said in a statement. “We never looked at her with envy or jealousy because she worked with such grace and wit and charm. You only wish that one day you could be like her. I am so glad that she and Spence (Spencer Tracy) are finally together again.”

Her longevity amazed those who were not particularly keen on her clipped speaking voice and haughty manner; Dorothy Parker wrote of one of her stage performances, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” In later years Hepburn laughingly quoted a critic who described her voice as sounding like nickels dropping in a slot.

“I’ve had a fascinating life,” she once said. “I don’t think I’m the least bit peculiar, but people tell me I am.”

Peculiar, possibly. Ordinary, never. Not even at the start. Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born in Hartford, Conn. Her mother, Katharine, was a crusader for women’s rights and birth control. Her father, Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, pioneered the fight against venereal disease.

As she herself remarked, she had every advantage in life. Still, her youth was not without tragedy. At the age of 14 she discovered her older brother Thomas hanging from the rafters of an aunt’s house, an apparent suicide. After the funeral, she recorded in her 1991 autobiography, “Me: Stories of My Life,” no one in the family ever mentioned Tom again. “They moved on into life,” she wrote.

The acting bug bit when she attended Bryn Mawr College, and she made her professional debut in Baltimore in “The Czarina” in 1928. The same year she made her Broadway bow in “These Days.” Even in her early days, she had a reputation for being difficult and was fired several times from stage productions. In 1932 she was dropped from and rehired for “The Warrior’s Husband,” an updating of “Lysistrata” that brought her first strong notices and the interest of RKO Pictures, from whom she demanded and received $1,500 a week.

Like her Paramount contemporary, Marlene Dietrich, Hepburn took to wearing pants in public and speaking her mind — hardly shocking today, but at the time considered eccentric behavior. Contentious from the very start, challenging directors and producers as well as film technicians, she just as quickly became a star.

Director George Cukor selected her from a list of far more experienced actresses (such as Norma Shearer) to play John Barrymore’s daughter in “A Bill of Divorcement.” The film was a hit, and RKO was so pleased, the studio cast her in the lead of the indifferent “Christopher Strong,” the memory of which was wiped away by her star-making turn in “Morning Glory.”

Her next assignment, as Jo, the obstinate tomboy in Cukor’s “Little Women,” is considered one of her finer performances.

Though the public tends to think of her pairings with Tracy, she was just as memorable in her films with Cary Grant, such as “Sylvia Scarlett,” “Holiday” and “Bringing Up Baby.”

“There’s no pretense about her,” Grant once observed. “She’s the most completely honest woman I’ve ever met.”

Tracy and Hepburn’s onscreen pairing had a decidedly domestic air to it; she was sometimes highfalutin, but he’d give her a swat with his paw to keep her in place. Grant, on the other hand, brought out a playful, flirtatious side to her; he’d look at her, amused, and wait for her to swat herself.

Despite several impressive portrayals in films including “Alice Adams” and “Stage Door,” Hepburn was by the end of the ’30s voted “box office poison” by theater owners; her reputation for difficulty with her peers and the press didn’t help matters.

Rather than take on an assignment in “Mother Carey’s Chickens,” she paid $220,000 to buy herself out of her RKO contract.

She petitioned, unsuccessfully, for the lead role in “Gone With the Wind,” and when that failed, agreed to do a play by Philip Barry, “The Philadelphia Story,” that had been written specifically for her. She optioned the play and, after having won rave reviews onstage, sold the rights to MGM with the stipulation that she star in it. The film, with Grant and James Stewart, marked a stunning comeback in 1940.

She remained at MGM for the next several years and began her professional and private association with Tracy, another of the studio’s talents, beginning with “Woman of the Year” in 1942. The relationship on screen and off continued until 1967, with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which they completed shortly before his death.

According to Hollywood lore, on their first day on the set together, Hepburn said to Tracy, “I’m afraid I’m too tall for you,” to which he replied, “Don’t worry, Miss Hepburn, I’ll soon cut you down to my size.”

By the time she performed in Frank Capra’s “State of the Union” in 1948, her outspokenness was once again in disfavor. Her politics came into question because of her longtime support for former vice president Henry Wallace, who was attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Hepburn attacked back, calling the activities of HUAC’s J. Parnell Thomas a smear campaign. “The artist since the beginning of time has always expressed the aspirations and dreams of his people,” she said. “Silence the artist and you have silenced the most articulate voice the people have.”

Hepburn continued to be articulate and outspoken, transitioning to more mature roles in films as varied as “Summertime,” “The African Queen,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” and, notably, 1962’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” considered by many her dramatic high water mark.

She also impressed onstage in London, on Broadway and in Australia, performing Shakespeare and Shaw, including “The Millionairess.” She worked sporadically in the ’60s, attending to Tracy, who was in failing health; after the actor’s death, she erupted with another burst of creative energy and captured two additional Oscars. She also received a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical “Coco,” in which she portrayed designer Coco Chanel, and an Emmy for “Love Among the Ruins,” directed by Cukor and co-starring Laurence Olivier.

Hepburn seemed to reinvent herself several times during her sometimes bumpy career. In the ’60s, when contemporaries like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were doing horror films and others were playing supporting roles, Hepburn stood firm. In her insistence on being a leading lady, she wound up appearing in a series of indifferent telefilms that largely traded on her image as a smart, feisty old lady, such as “Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry,” “Laura Lansing Slept Here,” “The Man Upstairs” and 1994’s “This Can’t Be Love,” with Anthony Quinn.

Her final Broadway performance was in 1980’s “The West Side Waltz,” and the last film she toplined was the 1985 black comedy “Grace Quigley,” co-starring Nick Nolte. Warren Beatty sweet-talked her into a small but key part in 1994’s “Love Affair” — the only time in her life she played a supporting role, and the only time she used the F word onscreen.

She had her one wish in life: “I only want to go on being a star. It’s all I know how to be.” For decades this seemed to involve an insistence on privacy and a seeming indifference to fans. Once, as she got into a car, a fan berated her for not stopping for photos and autographs, shouting, “We made you, Miss Hepburn,” to which she replied, “The hell you did!” before slamming the car door shut.

However, in later years, she opened her life frequently to the news, appearing on talkshows with Cavett, on “60 Minutes,” and hosting a 1986 TV documentary about Tracy (in which she read aloud a letter she’d recently written to the long-deceased actor). It was the only time she spoke about her relationship to the actor, long after he and his wife Louise had died.

When asked whom she would like to host a TNT cable docu about her, she answered curtly that she would do it herself, and the result was the 1993 “Katharine Hepburn: All About Me” — a companion piece to, and plug for, her autobiography.

In addition, Hepburn wrote “The Making of ‘the African Queen’ Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.” One of her last works was “Phyllis and Me,” a screenplay based on her life with her longtime confidant Phyllis Wilbourn. It remains unproduced.

Hepburn married only once, to Ludlow Odgen Smith, whom she forced to change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow because she did not want to be known as Kate Smith. The marriage lasted six years, ending in part due to Hepburn’s raging ambition. She recalled that Ludlow was “an angel” and she behaved like “a pig” toward him. She never had children, of which she admitted, “I was too selfish to be a mother.”

The lights will dim on Broadway at 8 p.m. Tuesday in her honor, said Patricia Armetta-Haubner, a spokeswoman for the League of American Theaters and Producers.

Cynthia McFadden, a friend of Hepburn and executor of her estate, said that according to Hepburn’s wishes, there will be no memorial service and burial will be private at a later date.

Hepburn is survived by a sister and a brother and 13 nieces and nephews.

(Army Archerd and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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