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Patricia Modell, actress and philanthropist, dies at 80

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Patricia Modell, a successful TV and film actress in the 1950s and '60s who became a well-known philanthropist in Baltimore with her husband, former Ravens owner Arthur Modell, died Wednesday at the age of 80.

Mrs. Modell was admitted two weeks ago to Gilchrist Hospice, one of several local charitable organizations she had served as a board member and donor. Though the cause of death was not immediately known, she was hospitalized several months ago with pancreatitis and her health continued to decline.

Mrs. Modell moved to Baltimore in 1995 with her husband, then owner and president of the Cleveland Browns, when he moved that team to create the Ravens. Since then, the couple has been heavily involved in charitable work, as they had been in Cleveland.

"She was a woman who didn't have to do anything, because of her very successful husband, but she did so much," said friend Nancy Grasmick, recently retired state superintendent of schools.

In addition to Gilchrist Hospice, Mrs. Modell on served on the boards of several organizations involved with health care, including the House of Ruth and Kennedy Krieger Institute, and she was a substantial contributor to the St. Vincent's Center.

With a $5 million pledge in 2008, the Modells also helped to launch the SEED School, a public boarding school for disadvantaged middle and high school students from around the state. Mrs. Modell did not limit her involvement to donations and board meetings, but interacted with students.

"She had an absolute dedication to children who really had struggles in life, whether it was poverty, disability or any kind of abuse," Grasmick said.

Added Connie Pitcher, a friend who worked with Mrs. Modell on a bi-annual ball to benefit Gilchrist Hospice: "Pat cared deeply about children as the hope for our society."

Mrs. Modell was involved in the cultural community as well.

"Countless individuals and institutions across the region have benefited from Pat's generosity and passion," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. "She has been a devoted ally of the arts in Baltimore and a dear friend to the BSO. Since Art and Pat arrived here … they have embraced the city's cultural, educational and civic institutions, donating their time and resources to build a better Baltimore."

Mrs. Modell served on the boards of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Walters Art Museum, and was also a generous donor to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"During the economic downturn, she and Art were critical to keeping us going with quite significant gifts," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum. "She loved the beauty of the space, especially the sculpture court."

The financial generosity of Mrs. Modell and her husband received permanent recognition on a building on Mount Royal Avenue. The historic Lyric Opera House now bears the name Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, in recognition of the couple's generosity.

The Modell's contribution of $3.5 million last year, one of the largest made to a Baltimore cultural institution, completed a $12.5 million capital campaign to make much-needed renovations of the theater's backstage facilities.

"When I moved to Baltimore, the first time I went to the Lyric I was very taken with it," Mrs. Modell said in an interview with The Sun in 2010. "It had charm to it, and the acoustics are marvelous ... I thought if we could help out to keep the Lyric going, we would. Music and theater give something to our souls."

In a statement on behalf of the board and staff of the Modell Center, Edward J. Brody, chairman of the Lyric Foundation board of trustees said: "We are all honored to be a part of a venue that carries [Mrs. Modell's] name. We are grateful for her foresight and guidance, steady hand and warm heart."

In Cleveland, Mrs. Modell served on the board at Ursuline College and was active in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Cleveland Musical Arts Association, the Cleveland Ballet, the Playhouse Square Foundation, and the Cerebral Palsy Association.

She supported the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and, with her husband, she started the Hospice of the Western Reserve.

In 2009, the Maryland chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals named the Modells Outstanding Philanthropists of the Year.

Mrs. Modell was born Patricia Breslin in New York City on March 17, 1931, the daughter of Edward and Marjorie Breslin.

She knew from an early age that she wanted to be on the stage and that desire became particularly strong during her sophomore year at the College of New Rochelle. She wanted to drop out of school and pursue an acting career.

Her father, a special sessions judge in New York, would only agree that she could try her hand at summer stock, thinking that she would find the work discouraging and change career paths. But the theater bug proved potent.

"I scrubbed floors, painted scenery," Mrs. Modell recalled in a 2001 interview with The Sun. "I loved it."

When she finished college, Mrs. Modell plunged into theater work full time and was soon performing in plays by Shakespeare and others on Broadway. She soon headed to Hollywood, where, by 1950, her career in television was firmly established.

Mrs. Modell made appearances on a range of television programs over the better part of two decades, including "Perry Mason," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Maverick," "The Rifleman," "The Donna Reed Show," and "The Dick Powell Theater."

She co-starred with Jackie Cooper in "People's Choice," a sitcom about a naturalist-turned-city councilman married to the mayor's daughter. The show, which aired on NBC 1955 to 1958, notably featured a "talking" basset hound named Cleo who made wry asides to the audience.

Among Mrs. Modell's best known TV performances was opposite William Shatner in a 1960 episode of "Twilight Zone" titled "Nick of Time," about newlyweds in a diner with a fortune-telling machine.

Mrs. Modell also played recurring roles in two soap operas during the 1960s — Laura Brooks in "Peyton Place," and nurse Meg Bentley in "General Hospital."

Although primarily a TV actress, Mrs. Modell did movie work, too. Her best-known performance was in "Homicidal," director William Castle's "Psycho"-inspired suspense film in 1961, which became something of a cult classic. Mrs. Modell's big screen credits include another suspense movie, "I Saw What You Did" (1965), with a cast that included Joan Crawford.

"What a life. Wow," said Vikan. "Her dignity and elegance, coupled with the stories she told about her life, made her a very compelling lunch companion."

Mrs. Modell was well known around Baltimore for being impeccably dressed and coiffed. Kristen Chandler, owner of Bella of Canton, was her hair stylist for most of Mrs. Modell's years here.

"She was old-school Hollywood," Chandler said. "She was just the original glam. Everyone was 'darling,' but she meant it. She was elegant and eccentric and funny, just a class act from the core."

Pitcher described Mrs. Modell as "exceptionally bright, as well as fearless and feisty. And if she didn't have a disagreement with someone within months of getting to know them, it was probably because they weren't sufficiently committed to the discussion. But she truly paid attention to and cared about everyone, from every walk of life," Pitcher said, "and their opinions."

Mrs. Modell's first marriage to character actor David Orrick McDearmon ended in divorce (McDearmon died in 1979).

The Modells were introduced at a restaurant in California by a mutual friend who owned the Los Angeles Rams. Art Modell, a 43-year-old bachelor at the time, told friends afterward that he had just met the woman he was going to marry.

"They say it hits you hard between the eyes," he said in a 2001 interview with The Sun. "My judgment has been vindicated … It's been a great run. We laugh together. We cry together. And she likes football."

When Mrs. Modell gave up her acting career in 1969 after marrying Art Modell, she never looked back.

"It's part of a life I don't even think about," she said a decade ago during a Sun interview that also touched on her work organizing a large charity ball to benefit Gilchrist Hospice.

"I hope it will make people more aware of hospice," Mrs. Modell said. "In hospice you're never dying and alone."

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Modell is survived by her sons, John and David, and six grandchildren.

Sloane Brown contributed to this article.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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