Winters dies of heart failure at 85
Two-time Oscar-winning actress Shelley Winters died of heart failure Saturday at the Rehabilitation Center of Beverly Hills. She had been hospitalized in October after suffering a heart attack. She was 85.
The actress was best known for her portrayals of overbearing maternal figures in films “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “A Patch of Blue,” for which she won supporting actress Oscars in 1959 and 1965, as well as “Lolita,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”
One of her best perfs came early in her career as the victim of Montgomery Clift’s social climber in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun,” which brought her an Oscar nomination.
It was the first time the glamorous young blonde allowed herself to look plain and tackled a multidimensional character, although she had already played victims before, most memorably in George Cukor’s “A Double Life,” and would make a career out of victimization.
Winters, trained at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio, also made an impression onstage in such Broadway dramas as “A Hatful of Rain” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” in a role she took over from Bette Davis.
Winters’ blowsy, overarching style, both onscreen and off, led to little film work in her later years. But she had a recurring role as Roseanne’s grandmother (and Estelle Parsons’ mom) on the hit ABC sitcom “Roseanne”
She was born Shirley Schrift in East St. Louis, Ill., and grew up there and in Brooklyn. In 1939, just short of her high school graduation, Winters began modeling in Manhattan’s garment district. She worked in summer stock and as a chorus girl, and became known by theater managers as “that aggressive blond without talent.”
Persistence paid off with a small role in “Conquest in April,” a musical that closed out of town. She made her Broadway debut in “The Night Before Christmas,” which was followed by bit parts in “Rio Rita” and (on tour) “Meet the People.”
A supporting role in 1942’s “Rosalinda” caught the eye of Columbia chief Harry Cohn and led to a $150-a-week contract. She reported for her job six months late, preferring to follow her new husband, Mack Paul Meyer, who had just entered the Army at the start of World War II.
Winters made her screen debut in an unbilled bit role in “What a Woman.” She jumped to fourth billing in her second film, “Sailor’s Holiday,” after which she appeared in “Knickerbocker Holiday.” After three more assignments, her Columbia contract lapsed in 1944.
It was then back to pounding on doors, taking acting lessons with Charles Laughton (and later Strasberg), some stage work and bit screen parts. She asked Garson Kanin if he’d recommend her to replace Judy Holliday on Broadway in “Born Yesterday.” Instead Kanin sent her to his brother, producer Michael Kanin, who was working with Cukor on the casting of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon’s script “A Double Life.” Winters won the part of a waitress whom Ronald Colman strangles.
Universal offered her a seven-year contract, which only led to more forgettable films until her leading part in “South Sea Sinner,” a bad rehash of “Rain.” She then campaigned hard for, and won, the role in “A Place in the Sun,” which brought her Oscar attention. She also starred opposite John Garfield in his final role, in “He Ran All the Way.” Leading roles in “Phone Call From a Stranger,” “Meet Danny Wilson” and “Behave Yourself” followed.
None did a thing for Winters’ career. Supporting roles in “Executive Suite” and “The Big Knife” refocused attention on her and would later lead to a prosperous career in character roles. In between she appeared onstage in “Born Yesterday” on the road and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in Los Angeles.
In the meantime the film assignments were, in her assessment, “lousy,” so she headed east and starred in Michael Gazzo’s 1955 Broadway production of “A Hatful of Rain,” a bold play about drug addiction. Next she starred opposite Pat Hingle in “Girls of Summer,” which had only a short run.
Some TV work, such as small-screen remakes of “A Double Life” and “The Women,” kept her busy until Stevens tapped her to play Mrs. Van Daan in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The supporting Oscar she received (which she later gave to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam) led to appearances in “The Balcony,” “The Chapman Report,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” one of her funniest perfs as the aggressive widow who can’t keep her hands off Humbert Humbert (James Mason), oblivious to the fact that he’s smitten with her teenage daughter.
In 1962 she replaced Davis in “Night of the Iguana” and then appeared Off Broadway in two one-acts entitled “Cages.” A 1966 Broadway role in Saul Bellow’s “Under the Weather” was a quick fold.
In the early 1970s she made her musical comedy stage debut in the short-lived but admired “Minnie’s Boys” as the mother of the comic Marx Brothers. She also toured in such plays as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “The Country Girl” and “Two for the Seesaw.” Her one try at playwriting, “One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger,” died quickly Off Broadway.
By the mid-’60s Winters was in her 40s and she settled into character parts. Some were well-received, such as her Oscar-winning “A Patch of Blue” and Oscar-nommed “Poseidon Adventure.”
Other appealing perfs came in such films as “Alfie,” “Harper,” “The Scalphunters,” “Enter Laughing,” “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” “Wild in the Streets” and “Bloody Mama.”
But in later years, as she became increasingly overweight and disheveled, she developed into a parody of herself in such films as “Cleopatra Jones,” “King of the Gypsies” and several foreign-made pics, with her image overshadowing some of her more subtle work in Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” and Paul Mazursky’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” and “Blume in Love.”
In addition to “Roseanne,” she appeared on TV shows including “McCloud,” for which she won an Emmy for single performance, “Love Boat” and “Kojak.”
She kept in front of the public through tell-all autobiographies “Shelley, Also Known as Shirley” and “Shelley II: The Middle of My Century,” published in 1981 and 1989, respectively.
Her star-studded sexual adventures named names and made for spicy if self-indulgent reading. She was also a frequent and lively talkshow guest.
Her work on behalf of Democratic candidates demonstrated a lifelong devotion to liberal politics.
In the 1990s she appeared in James Mangold’s “Heavy” and Jane Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady.”
Winters married three times, first to Meyer and then to actors Vittorio Gassman and Anthony Franciosa. All three unions ended in divorce.
She is survived by her companion of 19 years, Jerry DeFord; her daughter, Vittoria Gassman Neuman; and two grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. A memorial will be held in the near future.
(Timothy Gray contributed to this report.)