Wednesday, January 2, 2002
Hartford, Conn. Eileen Heckart, the lanky, gravel-voiced actress whose skill with comedy and drama won her an Oscar for "Butterflies Are Free," three Emmys and a special Tony for career excellence, has died. She was 82.
Heckart, who had been battling cancer for three years, died Monday at her home in Norwalk, her son Mark Yankee said.
"She was one of the great ladies of stage, TV and movies," he said Tuesday. "She was just as wonderful a mother, grandmother as an actress and an all-around wonderful woman."
Even in her early career, Heckart played character roles. She first drew attention on Broadway in 1953 as the love-starved Rosemary Sidney in "Picnic." The following year she created the role of Mrs. Daigle in "The Bad Seed," and she repeated it in the 1956 film version, gaining an Academy nomination as supporting actress.
Earlier in 1956 she had made her film debut in "Miracle in the Rain," which starred Jane Wyman and Van Johnson. That year, she also appeared in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (Paul Newman) and "Bus Stop" (Marilyn Monroe).
In 1969, she created the stage role of the domineering mother of a blind young man in "Butterflies Are Free" and repeated it in the 1972 movie, which starred Goldie Hawn and Edward Albert. This time she won the supporting actress Oscar.
Heckart created a memorable character on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as Mary Richards' Aunt Flo, a high-powered, globe-trotting reporter. Mary was overawed by her aunt's achievements, and her boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), renewed an old love affair with Flo.
In the 1979 miniseries "Backstairs at the White House," Heckart offered a fresh take on Eleanor Roosevelt, presenting her as bright, intelligent and even a bit sexy. She had experience portraying FDR's first lady, having toured in 1976 with a one-woman show, "Eleanor."
Because of her tall frame, sad eyes and distinctive voice, Heckart was often cast as eccentrics. It was all an act, she said in a 1989 interview: "I am not one bit an eccentric. I'm always on time. I know my lines. And I've been everything but eccentric for a whole lot of years."
She was awarded a special Tony in 2000 for her lifetime of theater work.