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Beatrice Straight; Won Oscar for Role in 'Network'

April 11, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody was more surprised than the actress when she won an Academy Award. But nobody disputed the choice, either, because although her scenes were brief and few, she was that good.

Beatrice Straight, who earned the best supporting actress Oscar in 1976 for three days' work and three scenes as William Holden's estranged wife in the classic motion picture sendup of television, "Network," has died. She was 86.

Straight, who also earned a Tony for her work on Broadway and was nominated for an Emmy for television, died Saturday in Los Angeles, said her son Tony Cookson.

Although little known in Hollywood, Straight was a distinguished actress long before her memorable turn in "Network." She made her Broadway debut in 1935 in "Bitter Oleander," and in 1953 earned a Tony for best supporting actress as Elizabeth Proctor, a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in the original production of Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible."

For more than 40 years, she also had a continuing presence on television, earning an Emmy nomination in 1978 as Alice Dain Leggett, matriarch in the miniseries "The Dain Curse." She was also the Queen Mother to Lynda Carter's "Wonder Woman" in the 1970s.

Dignified, competent, strong-willed, at times imperious, the elegant, red-haired Straight was often cast as the doyenne, the matriarch or the professional. She was Mother Christophe in the 1959 film "The Nun's Story," the investigator of the paranormal in the 1982 film "Poltergeist," and Rose Kennedy in the 1985 CBS miniseries "Robert Kennedy and His Times."

Born to the wealth, privilege and prominence she sometimes emulated as an entertainer, Beatrice Whitney Straight grew up in Old Westbury on New York's Long Island. Her father was banker and diplomat Willard Dickerman Straight, who had been a business associate of J.P. Morgan, and her mother was the Whitney dynasty heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight.

Beatrice was educated at private schools in New York and Devonshire, England, where she appeared in Ibsen's "A Doll's House" to such critical acclaim that she decided to study acting. After taking classes from Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov and a member of the Moscow Art Theatre, she persuaded him to start an acting school and later taught there.

Early in her career, Straight worked primarily on Broadway and in smaller New York theaters, appearing as Lady MacDuff in "Macbeth," and as the leading lady in "The Heiress" opposite Peter Cookson.

She married Cookson in 1949, and they lived in New York and Los Angeles until his death in 1990.

Her early television work included a 1951 role in the long-running soap opera "Love of Life," and her first film was the 1952 "Phone Call From a Stranger." Her final film, in which she portrayed Goldie Hawn's mother, was "Deceived" in 1991.

She is survived by two sons; a stepson and a stepdaughter; one brother; a stepbrother; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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