Tony-nominated, Obie Award-winning actress Helen Stenborg, died Tuesday, March 22, in Manhattan. She was 86.
Born in Minneapolis, Stenborg moved to New York to begin her career as an actress at the age of 17, just a little more than a month after Pearl Harbor. Before she was out of her teens, she performed in the national tours of popular wartime comedies “Three’s a Family” and “Claudia.” She was also a USO girl and performed for Allied troops in Italy and France.
While rehearsing a veteran’s hospital show in 1946, she met actor Barnard Hughes, to whom she was married in 1950. In the 1950s, they performed together at the Tenthouse Theater, a stock company that divided its time between Chicago and Palm Springs.
In 1999, she performed on Broadway with her husband in Noel Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings” in a production that starred Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris. She was nominated for the Tony Award for best supporting actress. She and Hughes were honored with Drama Desk Awards for lifetime achievement in 2000.
Other Broadway appearances include the Roundabout Theatre Company production of “A Month in the Country,” starring Helen Mirren, and Hugh Leonard’s “A Life.” She toured with her husband in the national company of Leonard’s “Da,” the play for which Hughes won the 1978 Tony for best actor. She was a longtime member of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, appearing with William Hurt, Jeff Daniels, and Judd Hirsch in the original productions of Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore,” “The Fifth of July” and “Talley and Son,” for which she drew an Obie in 1986. Her questions to Wilson about the backstory of her character Sally Talley during rehearsals for “The Fifth of July” inspired Wilson to write Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Talley’s Folly.”
Her last Broadway performance was in 2002 as Rebecca Nurse in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.
Off Broadway, in 1999, Stenborg played E.M Ashford, mentor to John Donne scholar Vivian Bearing (played by Kathleen Chalfant) in Margaret Edson’s “Wit.”
Film work includes the leading role in the Oscar-winning short “Her Mother Dreams”; “On the Hook,” with Frank Langella and Elliot Gould; “Three Days of the Condor”; “Starting Over,” with Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds; “Enchanted”; and “Doubt.” TV credits include a long stint as an evil housekeeper on the soap opera “Another World.”
In September, at the age of 84, Stenborg appeared in Morris Panych’s “Vigil” with Malcolm Gets at the DR 2 Theater in Manhattan, winning the Richard Seff Award for performance by a veteran female character actress in a supporting role.
Hughes died in 2006. Stenborg is survived by a son, director Doug Hughes and his partner actress Kate Jennings Grant; a daughter, actress Laura Hughes, and her partner, actor-director-producer John Gould Rubin; and a grandson.
Funeral services will be held Monday, April 4, at 10:30 a.m at the Church of the Transfiguration, also known as the Little Church Around the Corner, at 1 East 29th St. between Fifth and Madison. Donations may be made to the Actors Fund or the Episcopal Actors Guild.