Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86.
Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and in film, but was best known for her Broadway performances. She originated the role of aging diva Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” (1995), portrayed the vengeful and filicidal title character in “Medea” (1982), and played a Scottish school teacher with a fondness for fascism in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1968). Caldwell won Tonys for all three performances, as well as another for “Slapstick Tragedy,” a 1966 double-bill of Tennessee Williams one-act plays. She also starred as Lillian Hellman on Broadway in 1986’s “Lillian” and appeared opposite Christopher Plummer in a 1967 production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” in Stratford, Ontario.
On screen, Caldwell had supporting turns in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011). She was also known to a younger generation of viewers as the voice of the Grand Councilwoman, the leader of the United Galactic Federation, in the “Lilo & Stitch” franchise.
Caldwell was born on Sept. 14, 1933 in Melbourne, Australia, to Edgar Caldwell, a plumber and ballroom bouncer, and Zoe Hivon, a dancer. She moved to London to join the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 and began her American career as an original member of the company at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Caldwell married theatre producer and director Robert Whitehead in 1968. They were together until his death in 2002. She is survived by two sons, Sam and Charlie Whitehead; and grandchildren Ross and Ward Whitehead.