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Obituaries

Nancy Marchand; Actress Starred in TV's 'Sopranos' and 'Lou Grant'

June 20, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nancy Marchand, the shrewish, scheming Mafia family matriarch of "The Sopranos" cable television series and the patrician newspaper publisher on the long-running "Lou Grant" series, has died at the age of 71.

Marchand died Sunday night, on the eve of her 72nd birthday, of lung cancer in her home in Stratford, Conn., according to an HBO spokesman.

An Obie-winning and Tony-nominated Broadway actress, Marchand, who felt personally uneasy meeting people, played powerful, often regal matriarchal or authority figures.

Despite her illness, she had continued to appear on the HBO series "The Sopranos," which recently completed its second season, as Livia Soprano. The actress' lung cancer was even incorporated into the series story line.

"Her attitude is, 'Whatever happens, use it in the show,' and I think that's the way they'll go," a spokesman for the show said last September.

Sullen, self-pitying and Machiavellian, the Livia Soprano character, although suspected of suffering from Alzheimer's disease, controlled her sprawling mob family and worked to destroy her son Tony, played by James Gandolfini, as she conspired with her brother-in-law to undermine him in the family business.

Marchand won four Emmys for her role on "Lou Grant," which starred Ed Asner in the title role and ran on CBS from 1977 to 1982. As the elegant, widowed owner and publisher of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune, Margaret Pynchon, she was as tough, stubborn and determined as Asner's city editor.

"For me, the ["Sopranos"] series offers a refreshing change of pace," Marchand said last July in contrasting her role as the unkempt, smarmy Livia with her previous work. "Most of my career I've been caught up in the 'tasteful lady syndrome.' I've portrayed many elegant women--a lot of them similar to Mrs. Pynchon. There is certainly nothing elegant about Livia Soprano."

The actress admitted that even she didn't know what made Livia Soprano tick or even whether she had Alzheimer's disease.

On "Lou Grant," despite the fireworks that often erupted between them, Marchand's publisher and Asner's city editor also demonstrated a mutual respect for each other. Modeled on the Washington Post's Katharine Graham, New York's Cissy Patterson and other legendary female publishers, Marchand's Margaret Pynchon attracted her own fans, including Asner, who called her phenomenal. News organizations invited Marchand to perform such functions as installing officers of the National Press Club.

The four "Lou Grant" Emmys--Marchand also was nominated for one for "The Sopranos"--were made into the legs of a coffee table in her home.

Long before her two best-known series, Marchand helped make live television history in 1953 when she played Clara opposite Rod Steiger on the NBC Philco-Goodyear Playhouse presentation of "Marty" by her friend, the playwright Paddy Chayefsky. The story later was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair.

"I got the role of Clara because I wasn't cutesy--I never have been. And I had a bony face," she said last year, laughing about makeup artists on "The Sopranos" who actually worked to make her Livia Soprano as decrepit and unattractive as possible.

Born June 19, 1928, in Buffalo, N.Y., Marchand was a large, shy child who was sent to acting school at age 10 to overcome her social ineptness. She went on to study Shakespeare, singing and public speaking at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech.

Marchand made her stage debut in 1946 in the play "The Late George Apley." Her Broadway debut came five years later in "The Taming of the Shrew."

She earned Obie Awards in 1960 for "The Balcony" and in 1990 for "The Cocktail Hour" and was nominated for a Tony in "White Liars and Black Comedy." Marchand also earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for "Mornings at Seven."

An original member of New York's Phoenix Theater repertory group, Marchand also was popular for her work in such plays as "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You," "Taken in Marriage," "The Plough and the Stars," "Awake and Sing" and "The End of the Day."

She made her motion picture debut in 1957 as Julie in "The Bachelor Party" with Don Murray, E.G. Marshall and Carolyn Jones. Among her other films were "Ladybug, Ladybug," "Me, Natalie," "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon," "The Hospital," "The Bostonians," "From the Hip" and "Jefferson in Paris."

In the 1995 remake of "Sabrina," she played the mother of Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear. She was Mrs. O'Brien in Ford's "Regarding Henry" and a judge in "Dear God," starring Kinnear.

Adept at comedy as well as drama, she was the mayor in the 1988 "Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad," the first in the series of films starring Leslie Nielsen as a deadpan bumbling cop.

Best known for her long-running television roles, she also had regular roles in the small-screen soap operas "Love of Life" and "Search for Tomorrow" and such series as "Beacon Hill," "Coach," "Law and Order" and "Crossroads." She guest-starred on the popular "Night Court" and "Cheers" and appeared in several television movies, including "Some Kind of Miracle," "Willa," "Once Upon a Family," "The Golden Moment--An Olympic Love Story" and Agatha Christie's "Sparkling Cyanide."

Marchand's husband of 47 years, actor-director Paul Sparer, died of cancer last November. She is survived by three children, David, Kathryn and Rachel.

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