When Elizabeth Wilson was growing up desperately unhappy in her grandfather’s baronial, six-story home, she would sit alone on a sun porch and read fiction out loud, losing herself in the Ladies’ Home Journal.
“Mother was so savvy,” she told Connecticut Magazine in 2012. “She caught me doing that and sent me to a place in Grand Rapids that gave acting lessons. So how did I become an actress? To escape. It saved my life.”
Wilson played character roles in more than 30 movies and numerous Broadway plays. In “The Graduate” (1967), she was the picture of suburban cluelessness as the mother of confused, young Benjamin Braddock. In “The Addams Family” (1991), she was a con artist who happened to be Uncle Fester’s mom. In “Hyde Park on Hudson” (2012), she was Sara Ann Delano Roosevelt, the daughter of a tea-and-opium millionaire and the all-controlling mother of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Wilson, who never married or had children despite the many maternal roles she played, died Saturday in a New Haven, Conn., hospital. She was 94.
Her health had been in rapid decline for about a week, said Elizabeth Morton, an actress and close friend.
Tall and elegant, Wilson often played women who had or sought authority.
In “Nine to Five” (1980), she was the meddling Roz Keith, an apple-polishing office snoop who tried to undermine the plot that Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda hatched against their sexist boss.
Director Mike Nichols cast her in seven projects, including “Catch-22" (1970), “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973), “Regarding Henry” (1991) and his Broadway production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”
What may have been Wilson’s most famous film moment occurred in Nichols’ “The Graduate,” when she let out a full-throated, prolonged, shriek of glee and did an excited little dance on hearing her son’s plans to marry. As 21-year-old Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman delivered the news in a funeral monotone. His mom, on the other hand, was off-the-charts loud.
“She and Nichols had decided that she’d make that scream, but they wouldn’t tell the rest of the cast,” Morton said. “She was thoughtful enough to tell the sound guy, but she was pretty hoarse by the end of the day.”
On Broadway, Wilson’s work drew admirers such as playwright Tennessee Williams, who in 1982 told biographer James Grissom that she was one of a small “group of sane and balanced and kind women” that he fantasized about calling to help him battle his self-doubt.
“Elizabeth Wilson is entirely unconditional,” he told Grissom. “She gives her all to her parts, and I have loved her in everything I’ve seen.”
Wilson won a 1972 Tony Award as the mother of a blinded Vietnam veteran in David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones.” She performed well into her 80s and just a few weeks ago went to New York from her home in Branford, Conn., to participate in the reading of a one-act play, Morton said.
Elizabeth Welter Wilson was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 4, 1921, the daughter of insurance agent Henry Dunning Wilson and his wife, Marie. The Wilsons’ marriage was strained and made even more difficult by constant quarrels between Henry Wilson and his father-in-law, a prosperous merchant who had emigrated from Germany in 1870.
After high school, she studied theater in New York with renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner.
“His technique was so simple,” she later recalled. “When you read a part, you think, ‘What does this person want?’ That’s an action, and that’s what Sandy believed was the core of acting. It changed my life. And, oh honey: He was a charmer!”
During and after World War II, Wilson performed in the Pacific for the USO. She was uninjured when her plane crashed in Papua New Guinea, though she and other passengers had to camp several days in the jungle before rescuers arrived.
In the 1940s, Wilson resisted a moviemaker’s offer of a multiyear contract. The deal would have required her to have plastic surgery and invent a more colorful name.
“I said, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” she told the Hartford Courant in 2014. “So I still have a big nose, crooked jaw and common name.”
Not that it mattered a bit.
“She was devoted to being an actress,” Morton said. “She felt very blessed. She could look back at an incredible career with a smile on her face.”
Wilson is survived by her younger sister Mary Muir Wilson, with whom she lived, and several nieces and nephews.