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Eileen Heckart, 82; Actress Won Oscar for ‘Butterflies Are Free’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eileen Heckart, the Oscar-winning overprotective mother of Edward Albert’s blind character in love with kooky Goldie Hawn in “Butterflies Are Free,” and the twice Emmy-nominated Aunt Flo Meredith, the globe-trotting international correspondent of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant,” has died. She was 82.

The gravel-voiced, consummate character actress, who earned a special Tony in 2000 for her career excellence on stage, died Monday of cancer at her home in Norwalk, Conn.

Although Heckart described herself as “anything but eccentric,” she was usually cast as some sort of emotionally warped or distraught woman. This was thanks to her tall, lanky frame, sad eyes and foghorn voice--which she blamed more on childhood whooping cough than on her chain smoking--not to mention her facile ability to portray any character envisioned.

“Just once,” she told the now-defunct New York Journal American in 1958, “before I get too old, I’d like to play an attractive, normal, uncomplicated woman.”

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But whether she was inspiring young Mary or bedazzling Lou Grant, or interfering in the lives of her film, television and stage children, it was the odder roles that kept the actress working--and earning trophies in any medium she tackled.

Repeatedly nominated for nearly every acting award, Heckart received a couple of Emmys, an Oscar, a Tony, as well as Outer Circle, New York Drama Critics, Drama Desk, Lortel, Daniel Blum and Obie awards.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Anna Eileen Heckart was reared by her grandparents after her parents divorced when she was 2. She worked her way through Ohio State University, where she excelled in dramatics and was urged to become an actress.

After graduation in 1942, Heckart went to New York with $142 in her pocket. She worked as a clerk in a department store, read radio commercials and called time for badminton players at luxury hotels while studying at the American Theatre Wing. She debuted the same year in a Blackfriars Guild play.

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In 1943, she married her college sweetheart--John Harrison Yankee Jr., who died in 1995--settled in Connecticut and learned her craft in understudy and touring stage roles. She found other opportunities in drama with the invention of television, making her debut in 1947 in such live-theater series as “Kraft Suspense Theater,” “Studio One” and “The Philco Television Playhouse.”

The 1950s became the seminal decade for Heckart. She flourished on Broadway, prompting Hollywood to beckon, and managed to follow a couple of significant roles from stage to screen.

Heckart began to attract major notice in 1953 when she played Rosemary Sidney, the love-starved schoolteacher in “Picnic.”

A year later, she created the role of the grief-stricken mother of a murdered boy in “The Bad Seed,” earning a Donaldson award. Although she made her motion picture debut as Jane Wyman’s friend in “Miracle in the Rain” in 1956, Heckart followed a few months later with her re-creation of Mrs. Daigle for the film version of “The Bad Seed.”

Before the decade ended, she was seen as Rocky Graziano’s misfortune-weary mother in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and Marilyn Monroe’s waitress friend in “Bus Stop.” Back on Broadway, she also earned raves for her role as Aunt Lottie Lacey in William Inge’s “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”

Heckart first played the prickly mother in the Broadway version of “Butterflies Are Free” in 1969 and then reprised the role for the 1972 film, earning an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Heckart was appearing as an Alzheimer’s patient in “The Waverly Gallery” in 2000 when she received her special Tony. Then 81, she decided to withdraw from theater, commenting that at her age, “You don’t have the energy or the stamina you had when you were 60 or even 70.”

Among the memorable roles that seemed to glide easily from one form of entertainment to another was Heckart’s innovative 1976 portrayal of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, which a Times reviewer called “a great intellectual pleasure.” Heckart toured in a one-woman show, “Eleanor,” which played at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, depicting the late-middle-aged activist as slightly sexy as well as brainy. The interpretation earned Heckart the role as Eleanor in the critically acclaimed 1979 television miniseries “Backstairs at the White House.”

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Although based in the New York area, Heckart was a frequent visitor to Los Angeles stages as well as sound stages. In 1995, she appeared as the grandmother in “Pippin” at Long Beach Civic Light Opera at the special invitation of its then-new artistic director--her son, Luke Yankee.

Among the many plays in Heckart’s long theater career were “Our Town,” “They Knew What They Wanted,” “A View From the Bridge,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” “Mother Courage” (her favorite role), “Time of the Cuckoo,” “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” “Love Letters” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Her movies included: “Hot Spell,” starring Shirley Booth and Anthony Quinn; “Heller in Pink Tights,” with Sophia Loren and Quinn; “Up the Down Staircase,” with Sandy Dennis; “No Way to Treat a Lady,” with Rod Steiger; “Zandy’s Bride,” starring Gene Hackman; “Heartbreak Ridge,” with Clint Eastwood; “Seize the Day,” with Robin Williams; and “The First Wives Club” (as Diane Keaton’s mother).

On television, in addition to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Heckart joined the casts of such series as “Out of the Blue,” “Trauma Center,” “Partners in Crime,” “The Five Mrs. Buchanans” and “Murder One.” She also made guest appearances in many series, including “Gunsmoke” and “The Defenders,” and in several television movies.

Heckart is survived by her three sons, Mark, Philip and Luke Yankee.


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