British actress Margaret Tyzack, who drew legit kudos in spades, including a Tony, but was known more popularly in the U.S. for her work decades ago in public television’s “The Forsyte Saga” and “I, Claudius,” died Saturday in London after a brief battle with cancer. She was 79.
Tyzack drew a 1982 Olivier Award for her role as Martha in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” having replaced the ailing Joan Plowright, and a Tony in 1991 for the Peter Shaffer play “Lettice and Lovage,” in which she appeared opposite Maggie Smith both in London and on Broadway.
More recently, she won an Olivier in 2009 for her role as the imperious grandmother in a revival of Enid Bagnold’s 1950s comedy “The Chalk Garden.”
She also picked up a Tony nom in 1983 for her role as the Countess of Rousillon in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
The production of “Lettice and Lovage” for which the actress ultimately won her Tony originated in London, and Tyzack was initially prevented from playing the role on Broadway due to union rules under which only big international stars are usually granted permission to appear instead of an American. Smith, however, refused to appear on the Rialto unless Tyzack joined her, maintaining that Tyzack’s acting skills warranted the granting of a waiver. Actors’ Equity ultimately agreed.
Born in Essex, England, Tyzack attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She began her acting career in the early 1950s at a repertory company in central England. She began a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963.
Tyzack had appeared on British television since the mid-’50s but was first noted for her starring role in 1967 BBC drama “The Forsyte Saga,” a high-toned soap opera centered on an upper middle class family at the beginning of the 20th century. The enormously popular show also found success when it aired on U.S. public television in 1969.
She played a key role in “I, Claudius,” portraying the mother of the stuttering Roman emperor.
Brian Blessed, who starred with Tyzack in “I, Claudius,” told the BBC: “She was one of the most natural and great actresses of our times and also one of the greatest actresses I’ve ever worked with.”
The actress was a mainstay of British television over the decades, appearing this year in the popular soap opera “EastEnders,” though illness compelled her to exit that role in April. (For American TV, she had a recurring role on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” in the mid-’90s as Indy’s tutor, Miss Seymour.)
Tyzack also appeared in a number of films, including Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange”; Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears”; “Mrs. Dalloway,” starring Vanessa Redgrave; and two recent films by Woody Allen, “Match Point” and “Scoop.”
This year she completed work on the film “Mother’s Milk.”
Tyzack appeared in Nicholas Hytner’s 2009 production of “Phedre” at the National Theater in London that starred Helen Mirren; Tyzack played Oenone, nurse to the queen. In her last stage role, she played Mrs. Higgins in “My Fair Lady” at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris last Christmas.
She is survived by her husband, Alan Stephenson, and a son.