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From the Archives: Shirley Booth; TV's Hazel Won Oscar, Tonys, Emmys

Shirley Booth, whose dramatic triumphs ranged from the tortured wife in the poignant "Come Back, Little Sheba," to the pleasantly arrogant Hazel in the 1960s television series of the same name, has died at her home in Chatham, Mass.

A spokesman for Nickerson Funeral Homes in nearby Orleans said Tuesday that Miss Booth—a Tony, Emmy and Academy award winner—was 94 when she died Friday.

She had been inactive for many years and was living quietly in the Cape Cod village.

There have been few actors in the modern American theater as facile and freewheeling as Shirley Booth, who was born Thelma Booth Ford in New York City.

From the garrulous, domineering, slightly daft maid Hazel Burke, for which she won three Emmy nominations and two awards, to the slovenly Lola Delaney, wife of a recovering alcoholic in "Sheba," for which she won both a Tony and an Oscar, she was considered a master craftsman.

A Times film critic found her "supremely competent" when "Sheba" was made into a film in 1952. It was her first picture and she won a best-actress Oscar over such dominant talent as Joan Crawford and Julie Harris. Two years earlier New York critics had heaped mountains of praise on her for the stage version of the frumpy wife, blamed by her husband for his misery.

She also had been the original Dolly Levi, the "Matchmaker" in the Broadway play on which the musical "Hello, Dolly!" was based.

But neither stage nor film nor television was her primary interest in life, she said in a 1971 Times interview.

She said she would be perfectly content to live in Cape Cod with her pet poodle Prego and her memories of William H. Baker, the Army corporal she married in 1943 and who died eight years later of heart disease.

"I'm devoted to privacy," she said, explaining that "you give so much energy on the stage you need time to recharge."

Baker had been her second husband. Her first was Ed Gardner, host of radio's old "Duffy's Tavern," on which she played the lighthearted Miss Duffy. They divorced two years after their 1938 marriage.

Despite another Emmy nomination for the 1966-67 TV version of "The Glass Menagerie," in which she played Amanda, and her winning of two other Tonys (in 1953 for "Time of the Cuckoo" and in 1949 for "Goodbye, My Fancy"), the diminutive tragicomic will probably go down in show business annals as the lovingly cantankerous Hazel.

In that series, which ran from 1961 to 1966, she took total control of the home of George Baxter, a highly successful lawyer played by Don DeFore. While he may have been in charge of his life during the day, he surrendered all control once he crossed his own threshold.

Hazel, his housekeeper, not only overruled his domestic decisions, but always knew what was proper for his career. In the final year of the show Baxter left and Hazel went to work for his brother, continuing her running dominance of another household.

The role was light-years removed from the grand dames or helpless wives she had portrayed on stage but she welcomed the routine of television.

"I like being told what to do," she said in 1971 when she was in Los Angeles to co-star with Gig Young in a revival of the stage play "Harvey." She said she had no intention of doing a long-running series but became attracted to Hazel's "common sense and humor."

She also acknowledged that the series had made her rich.

That affluence came many years after she had begun appearing in amateur plays when she was a girl in New York and later in Hartford, Conn., where she also made her professional debut in 1923 in "The Cat and the Canary."

Her Broadway debut came in 1925 in a supporting role in "Hell's Angels," which starred another newcomer, Humphrey Bogart.

She appeared with Katharine Hepburn in "Philadelphia Story," and with Ralph Bellamy in "Tomorrow the World."

Her other plays included "Time of the Cuckoo" and "By the Beautiful Sea." Among her movies were "About Mrs. Leslie," "The Matchmaker" and "Hot Spell," her last, in 1958.

In 1973 she returned to television in a short-lived series, "A Touch of Grace," cast as a recent widow who moves in with her daughter and son-in-law, setting off a generational battle. Her steady boyfriend was a gravedigger.

In 1971, at age 73, her hair had become snow white and her outlook philosophical.

If money had given her anything, she said, it was the power of choice.

"Now," she said comfortably, "I choose a role the way I'd choose a friend."

A sister, Jean Coe of Los Angeles, survives. Donations in Miss Booth's name may be made to the American Heart Assn.

news.obits@latimes.com

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