Gale Sondergaard Dies; Movies’ ‘Spider Woman’

Times Staff Writer

Gale Sondergaard, a consummate actress whose dramatic skills brought her both the first Academy Award for a supporting film role and a succession of parts as Hollywood’s premier woman villain, is dead.

She died Wednesday at Motion Picture and Television Hospital, where she had been a patient since 1982.

Her death at 86 was attributed to a cerebral vascular thrombosis, which followed a series of strokes.

The actress who became Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis in “Spider Woman” was a veteran of Shakespeare plays and America’s classical stage. Before going to Broadway she had succeeded Lynn Fontanne and Judith Anderson in the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” on Broadway.


Her marriage to director Herbert Biberman took her to Hollywood, where she won the first Oscar awarded to a supporting player for her role as Faith Paleologus in 1936’s “Anthony Adverse.”

The marriage also helped destroy her career, for she and Biberman were among the dozens of film talents blacklisted after the postwar House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into alleged Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.

At the time she was at the apex of her career, having been nominated for another supporting Academy Award in “Anna and the King of Siam” in 1946.

In 1969 she re-established herself in a one-woman off-Broadway show she titled simply “Woman,” and by the early 1970s she was back on screen in “A Maniac Is Loose” and “The Return of a Man Called Horse.” She also was a regular on the TV series “The Best of Everything.”

She was featured in 35 other films, among them “Juarez,” “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Bluebird” and “Road to Rio.”