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Zoe Caldwell, four-time Tony winner and the master of ‘Master Class,’ dies at 86

Actress Zoe Caldwell, photographed in 1995 as she was starring in a pre-Broadway run of Terrence McNally's "Master Class" at the Mark Taper Forum.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Zoe Caldwell, a four-time Tony Award winner remembered by Los Angeles theater audiences for her star turn in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” has died. She was 86.

Caldwell’s son Charlie Whitehead said she died peacefully Sunday at her home in Pound Ridge, N.Y. Whitehead said her death was due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.

During her illustrious career, the actress played Cleopatra, Saint Joan, Mother Courage and authors Colette and Lillian Hellman. Three of her four Tonys came in collaborations with her husband, Robert Whitehead, who was one of Broadway’s most prolific producers of serious drama.

She cited his influence in her decision to do “Medea,” the ancient Greek drama of a woman who is betrayed by her lover and kills their children in revenge. It won her a third Tony in 1982.

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New York Times critic Frank Rich cited the flashes of sensuality — which she said derived from the study of Greek painting and sculpture — and wit that she brought to the character.

“When, at last, the crime is at hand, the actress fully dramatizes the struggle between her hunger for revenge and her love of her sons,” Rich wrote. “Like the gods, we can understand, if not pardon, the primal impulse that drives her to the ultimate act of annihilation.”

McNally’s “Master Class,” which won raves at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before moving on to Broadway in 1995, was another joint effort with Whitehead. It won Caldwell her fourth Tony and brought Whitehead, as producer, the Tony for best play.

She played Callas as the opera superstar critiques, cajoles and inspires a trio of budding singers taking part in the uniquely intense musical education session called a master class.

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“A performance is a struggle. You have to win,” she says as Callas.

In a 1995 L.A. Times interview, Caldwell recalled her childhood and how her parents took her regularly to the theater, even though “we didn’t have any money” and they could only afford seats up in “the Gods,” meaning the uppermost balcony.

“Up in the Gods, they had benches. And they had ‘packers’ — men who went around with a short broom, padded on one end, and gently pushed whoever was on the end of the aisle, so they could get somebody else in,” Caldwell said.

She added: “There’s something terrific about that. It was such a visceral thing, of sharing. That’s why I always look up high when I’m in the theater.”

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Zoe Caldwell accepts her Tony Award for lead actress in "Master Class."
(Associated Press)

Caldwell was born in 1933 in Melbourne, Australia, to a family struggling to make it through the Depression. In her memoir, “I Will Be Cleopatra,” she wrote that she knew at an early age that her job would be “keeping audiences awake and in their seats.”

She made her stage debut at age 9 in a Melbourne production of “Peter Pan.” After performing in touring productions in Australia and taking parts in England and Canada, she did regional theater work at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

Caldwell made her Broadway debut in “The Devils” in late 1965, temporarily replacing Anne Bancroft, who injured her back.

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Caldwell was quickly announced for a role as a society columnist in “Slapstick Tragedy,” Tennessee Williams’ pair of one-act plays. The production lasted less than a week on Broadway in February 1966 — but it brought Caldwell her first Tony, for featured actress.

She became the toast of Broadway two years later for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” The story of an eccentric Scottish schoolteacher with pro-fascist tendencies originated as a novel by Muriel Spark. The role had already been successful for Vanessa Redgrave in London and would eventually win an Oscar for Maggie Smith.

The Washington Post, noting others had played the role, said “so masterfully exact is Miss Caldwell that watching her you will probably feel that hers is the only way (to play it). ... Almost at the instant we first see Miss Brodie, the actress has found a perfect mannerism.”

She and producer Whitehead married later that year. She told writer Rex Reed that far from pushing her into the Brodie role, Whitehead “wasn’t keen on me for the part” until the playwright, Jay Presson Allen, campaigned for her.

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Caldwell added Broadway directing to her résumé starting in 1977 with a comedy, “An Almost Perfect Person,” starring Colleen Dewhurst. In 1991, she directed Jason Robards and Judith Ivey in “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.” She was last on Broadway in 2003 as the Mystery Guest Star in “The Play What I Wrote.” She also lent her voice to the “Lilo & Stitch” cartoons and appeared in the 2011 film “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

Her husband died in 2002 at age 86, shortly after he had received a special Tony Award for his nearly 60-year career. Among his other honors were a best-play Tony for “A Man for All Seasons” in 1962 and a best-revival Tony for “Death of a Salesman” in 1984.

She and Whitehead had two sons, Sam and Charlie. In addition to her two sons, she is survived by two grandchildren.

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“I always knew I would be an actor. I am an actor,” she told the AP in 1986. “But being a wife and a mother still seems to me to be some kind of extraordinary stuff.”


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