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Irene Worth, 85; Actress Was 3-Time Tony Winner

March 13, 2002|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irene Worth, one of the great leading ladies of the English-speaking stage and a three-time Tony Award winner, died Sunday in New York at the age of 85.

The actress suffered a stroke Friday while at a Manhattan post office and died at Roosevelt Hospital, according to her sister, Carol Johnson of Santa Monica.

Worth won her best actress Tony awards for creating the title role in Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice" in 1965 and as Alexandra del Lago in a revival of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" in 1976. She received the Tony for best featured actress in 1991 for playing the bitter German immigrant Grandma Kurnitz in the premiere of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers."

Originally named Harriet Abrams, Worth grew up in California. But she became a stage star in England, arriving during World War II and living there for more than three decades, playing great classical roles on the West End and with such companies as the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. She portrayed Celia Coplestone in the original staging of "The Cocktail Party," T.S. Eliot's primary claim to theatrical fame, in Edinburgh in 1949.

In the 1950s and '60s, Worth often crossed the Atlantic to appear in New York productions. After seeing her in Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic" in 1960, critic Walter Kerr wrote in the now defunct New York Herald Tribune that Worth is "an actress to be studied by all other actresses who would themselves like to grow up."

Director and actor Austin Pendleton told the Washington Post in 1981 that Worth is "one of the three or four great actors in the English-speaking world. The thing that amazes me about her, to a greater degree than any other actor, is that she has a powerful intellect and knows how to make that work for her emotionally."

Her range was wide. She appeared in groundbreaking productions that were staged by such visionary directors as Peter Brook (Goneril in "King Lear" in 1962 and Jocasta in "Oedipus" in 1968) and Andrei Serban (Andreyevna in "The Cherry Orchard" in 1977). She played Winnie in Samuel Beckett's two-actor "Happy Days" in New York in 1979. But she also was at home in the more traditional environs of the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, where she starred in the first season in 1953 and returned in 1959 and 1970.

She appeared in film and television sporadically, winning a British Film Academy award for "Orders to Kill" in 1958. She re-created two of her most noted stage roles, Goneril in Brook's "King Lear" and Grandma Kurnitz in "Lost in Yonkers," in their screen versions.

But she seldom ventured far from a stage and never moved back to California to seek Hollywood fame.

Harriet Abrams was born in Fairbury, Neb., in 1916, the daughter of teachers in nearby Jansen, Neb. Her parents were Mennonites. Her father was superintendent of the county school system.

In 1920, the family moved to Reedley, Calif., home of a large Mennonite community in the San Joaquin Valley. Her brother, Luke Evans of Los Angeles, remembers his sister reciting lines from "Romeo and Juliet" while she washed the dishes at the age of 12.

The family moved to San Luis Obispo in 1928 and to Saticoy, near Ventura, in 1930, leaving the Mennonite culture behind and joining mainstream Protestant churches.

Young Harriet started her secondary education at San Luis Obispo and Ventura high schools, but spent her last two years at Newport Harbor High School after her family moved to Costa Mesa, where her father took a superintendent job in 1931. She was president of the girls' glee club and appeared in "The Mikado" during her senior year, 1933.

She attended Santa Ana Junior College (now Santa Ana College) for two years and then transferred to UCLA, continuing to appear in student plays, including "A Bill of Divorcement," "The Children's Hour" and "Ethan Frome" at UCLA.

During her college years, she obtained a small role in a Hollywood movie, appearing as a courtroom witness with only one line, said her brother. An RKO director, Alfred Santell, urged her to pursue an acting career. But her mother was opposed to the idea.

After the would-be actress graduated with an education degree in 1937, she began teaching kindergarten in Santa Ana. "But she became so fed up with doing what she didn't want to do, she became physically ill," said her brother.

She moved to New York in 1942, using the stage name Irene (pronounced I-ree-nee) Worth--which was on a list that had earlier been submitted to her by a studio executive. She got a job in a road tour of "Escape Me Never!" A year later she made her Broadway debut in "The Two Mrs. Carrolls," starring Elisabeth Bergner and Victor Jory. Worth later credited Bergner with urging her to go to England for classical training. She studied there with Elsie Fogerty, beginning in 1944, and made her London debut in "The Time of Your Life" in 1946.

After decades in London, Worth's accent often sounded English. In Neil Simon's 1999 memoir "The Play Goes On," he recalled that after she was cast in "Lost in Yonkers" without an audition, he and director Gene Saks became concerned that she might not be able to pull off Grandma Kurnitz's German accent.

They met with Worth for lunch in London and broached the subject indirectly. But the actress caught on, wrote Simon, and "she looked at us with a cold, chilling stare" and informed them that she hadn't auditioned in 42 years. The two men quickly dropped the subject.

She then asked the waiter to bring the dessert cart. When he wheeled it to the table, she started deliberating out loud--in a German accent: "Should I haff ze strudel, or perhaps ze apple tart? Nein. I sink ze chocolate tart looks best, yah? Danke schoen."

"She never looked at us or smiled," Simon wrote. "She was smarter than all of us. We had our Grandma Kurnitz."

Worth, who never married, is survived by her two siblings.

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