Zina Bethune, a child actress who was later a soloist with the New York City Ballet and a choreographer who founded her own company in Los Angeles and was repeatedly recognized for her work with disabled students, died Sunday night after she was struck by two cars on Forest Lawn Drive in Los Angeles. She was 66 and had stopped on the road to assist an injured possum.
Bethune was artistic director and choreographer for L.A. nonprofit Bethune Theatredanse (later Theater Bethune), which she founded in 1980. The company has toured widely.
Bethune also founded the dance and performance outreach effort Infinite Dreams, working with children who have mental or physical disabilities through schools across Southern California. More than 8,000 students have graduated from the program.
As a child, Bethune studied at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet; she began her association with the New York City Ballet at age 14. She also appeared in daytime soaps including “The Guiding Light” and as the daughter of Ralph Bellamy’s FDR, handicapped as a result of polio, in the 1960 film “Sunrise at Campobello.” She succeeded as a dancer despite her own battles with scoliosis and hip dysplasia, making her Broadway debut at age 11 in Frank Loesser musical “The Most Happy Fella.”
Bethune had a substantial career in television as well. She starred as Amy in a 1958 TV adaptation of “Little Women,” guested on “The Judy Garland Show” in 1963 and was a regular on CBS’ “The Nurses” from 1962-65. Later she guested on series including “Gunsmoke,” “Emergency!” and “CHiPs.”
She starred opposite Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese’s early bigscreen effort “Who’s That Knocking at My Door.”
In 1992 she returned to Broadway for a role in “Grand Hotel.”
Bethune’s last screen role was as a ballet teacher in a 1995 episode of “Party of Five.”
Infinite Dreams has been commended by the National Endowment for the Arts and by Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
Bethune was born in New York City. Her mother, Ivy Bethune, is an actress; her father was a sculptor and painter who died when she was young.
In addition to her mother, Bethune is survived by her husband, Sean Feeley.
Donations may be made to Theater Bethune at Theatrebethune.org.