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Jo Van Fleet; Award-Winning Actress

June 11, 1996|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

NEW YORK — Jo Van Fleet, an Academy Award and Tony winner who played mother to Paul Newman, James Dean and Cinderella, died Monday. She was 73.

Van Fleet won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1955--her first movie role, at age 35--for her portrayal of James Dean's madam mother in Elia Kazan's "East of Eden."

Two years later, she won a Tony Award as best featured actress for her role as the irritable Jessie Mae Watts in Horton Foote's "Trip to Bountiful."

Van Fleet, who was a member of the Actors Studio, often credited Kazan with having a major influence on her career. Her other films included "The Rose Tattoo," "Cool Hand Luke," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," "This Angry Age" and "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."

Over the years, Van Fleet played mother to many: She was Anthony Perkins' mother in "Look Homeward, Angel" on Broadway; Paul Newman's mother in "Cool Hand Luke," and Cinderella's wicked stepmother in the 1965 television revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella."

During her first year in Hollywood, the actress played the mother of Susan Hayward, then 37, in the film "I'll Cry Tomorrow."

Some of her best performances were portrayals of women much older than herself: In Kazan's "Wild River," she portrayed an 80-year-old matriarch who refuses to leave an island home that is about to be flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Following her success in "East of Eden," Van Fleet told a Los Angeles Times interviewer that she worried about being typecast in tragic roles.

Born in Oakland in 1922, Van Fleet first studied acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and then moved to Actors Studio to work with Kazan and Lee Strasberg.

She began her stage career at Washington's National Theater in 1944 in "U Harry" and quickly established herself as a powerful character actress.

Van Fleet first appeared on Broadway in 1946 in "The Winter's Tale," before moving on to successes with "The Trip to Bountiful" in 1953; "Look Homeward, Angel" in 1957, and "The Glass Menagerie" in 1959 and again in 1965.

She appeared most recently in Robin Williams' "Seize the Day," in 1986, which was rebroadcast in 1987 on PBS.

Van Fleet was married to William Bales, a dancer and choreographer, who died in 1990. She is survived by a son, Michael, of Toronto, and a granddaughter.

* MORE OBITUARIES: B8

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