Irene Worth, three-time Tony-winning actress whose rich voice reached the rafters in the Old Vic, Broadway houses and West End venues in roles the ranged from the Greeks and Shakespeare to Chekhov and Shaw and on to contempo fare, died Sunday March 10 in New York of a stroke. She was 85.
The actress, known for her distinct voice and patrician manner, worked extensively in theater on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on Broadway, in London’s West End and with such companies as the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater of Great Britain and Canada’s Stratford Festival.
Worth received her first Tony for best actress in 1965 for playing the wealthiest woman in the world, the mysterious title character in Edward Albee’s “Tiny Alice.” She received her second best-actress prize in 1976 for her portrayal of an aging but still glamorous movie star in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” appearing in the play opposite a young Christopher Walken. Her third Tony, this time in the featured-actress category, came in 1991 for “Lost in Yonkers,” as the distant, domineering mother in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. She repeated her role in the 1993 film version.
Her Shakespearean repertoire was extensive. For the Old Vic in the 1950s, she appeared as Lady Macbeth, Desdemona in “Othello,” Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Portia in “The Merchant of Venice.” At the 1953 inaugural season of Canada’s Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford, Ontario, she appeared in “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Richard III.” She also played Goneril in Peter Brook’s acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear” and was a fierce Jocasta in Brook’s version of “Oedipus” at the National Theater.
Nebraska native graduated from UCLA, made her Broadway debut in 1943 in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” and a year later moved to London, where she would live for more than three decades, appearing in such plays as “Native Son” in 1948 and T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Hour,” the following season. Among her other West End successes were the French farce “Hotel Paradiso” (1956) and Noel Coward’s “Suite in Three Keys” (1966).
Yet Worth continued to work on Broadway as well, receiving a Tony nom for Lillian Hellman’s 1960 “Toys in the Attic.” She obtained another Tony nom in 1976 for her role in the Joseph Papp production of “The Cherry Orchard” at Lincoln Center. Among her other memorable roles was a reunion with Walken in a Public Theater production of “Coriolanus” Off Broadway in 1988.
She suffered a stroke in 1999 just before she was to begin preview perfs in a Broadway revival of Anouilh’s “Ring Round the Moon” and wasn’t able to be in the production. Her last stage appearance was last September at London’s Almeida Theater with Paul Scofield in the two-character play, “I Take Your Hand in Mine.”
She is survived by a sister and brother.