Colleen Dewhurst, the award-winning stage and screen actress whose greatest triumphs came in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, died Thursday at her Westchester County home, the medical examiner’s office said.
Miss Dewhurst, 65, had suffered from a terminal illness, Jan Stutts, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, said without elaborating. She was pronounced dead by her personal physician at 10:55 p.m.
The actress, who won two Tony awards, also appeared in many films and television movies. Her film roles included a performance in this year’s “Dying Young,” which starred her son Campbell Scott, and an appearance in the 1977 Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall.”
She was president of the Actors Equity union at the time of her death, only the second woman to hold the post since the union was founded in 1913.
Actors Equity was embroiled in controversy under her stewardship last year after it decided to bar English actor Jonathan Pryce from playing a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.” The union reversed its decision after intense internal debate and heated public criticism.
“These situations are not attractive,” Miss Dewhurst told The Times last October. “But I think the country became aware that there is a problem (of hiring minority actors). The country had no idea this was going on. Minority groups stood up for each other within the union. They stood up for the Asian group and helped them to fight. I don’t think it was a racist issue. What we had was a lack of awareness.”
Born in Montreal, June 3, 1926, the daughter of a hockey player, Miss Dewhurst resolved to be a pilot and later, a journalist, before taking up acting. Her family was constantly on the move, and she attended 15 schools.
Her parents divorced when she was in her teens, but the actress always recalled in interviews that her childhood had been extremely happy. She dropped out of Milwaukee Downer College, a finishing school, after one year and worked odd jobs in New York City while studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Joseph Anthony and Harold Clurman.
Miss Dewhurst made her acting debut in 1946 in “The Royal Family,” and had her first Broadway role in 1952 in O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”
The year of her Broadway debut also was the year she joined a group of unknowns--Joseph Papp, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones--in the Shakespeare Workshop.
Over the next 20 years, she married and divorced Scott twice, and was reunited with Papp, playing Gertrude in “Hamlet” for his Shakespeare in the Park production in New New York’s Central Park.
Miss Dewhurst played roles in several other O’Neill dramas on Broadway as well, including the revival of “A Moon For the Misbegotten,” for which she won a Tony in 1973. It also was, according to some critics, her finest hour.
The actress, praised for her subtle, multidimensional characterizations, also won a supporting actress Tony award in 1961 for her role in “All the Way Home.”
Her Broadway credits also include “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” “Hello and Goodbye,” “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
She last appeared on Broadway in 1988 when she alternated roles in O’Neill’s masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the playwright’s exorcism of his own devastating family life, and “Ah, Wilderness!,” his only comedy.
“I always say that I am not an O’Neill expert,” she said in a 1988 interview. “I feel all I really know are his women.
“O’Neill’s women have great passion, a passion for life,” she said. “Nothing is done half way. It’s not little tiny things that happen to them. These plays are not about the day you cracked up the car and didn’t know how to explain it.”
In “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” Miss Dewhurst starred as Mary Tyrone, a tragic, drug-addled woman who was modeled after O’Neill’s mother. In “Ah, Wilderness,” a gentle, genial tale of innocence lost, she was the sweet loyal wife and mother, Essie Miller.
She also left her mark on such other memorable O’Neill characters as the sensual Abbie Putman in “Desire Under the Elms” and the murderous Christine Mannon in “Mourning Becomes Electra.”
She also appeared in such movies as “The Nun’s Story” and her television work included “The Kitty O’Neil Story,” “Studs Lonigan,” “Guyana Tragedy--The Jim Jones Story” and “The Blue and the Gray.”
Miss Dewhurst’s television work included parts in the miniseries “Anne of Green Gables” and as Candice Bergen’s mother in the CBS series “Murphy Brown.”
Dismissing descriptions of her career as being patterned after some grand design, she often said she simply accepted the roles that were offered.
Her stunning range made her equally effective in classical dramas and television mysteries. Last year she appeared in the NBC movie “Danielle Steel’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ ” with Jaclyn Smith and Perry King.
“I have decided that everyone in these type of stories are rich,” she said with a laugh. “They wear very beautiful clothes and they have a lot of jewelry. They are married to very powerful men.”
Miss Dewhurst said such glitzy roles are fun, adding that she loves to “suddenly find myself playing posh instead of heavy, heavy hangs the sword.”
She married James Vickery in 1947. They divorced in 1959. With Scott, she had two sons, Campbell and Alexander.
Funeral arrangements are pending.