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Obituaries

Margaret 'Peg' Phillips, 84; TV Actress

November 13, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Margaret "Peg" Phillips, who realized her dream of becoming an actress only in her late 60s and gained national recognition as general-store owner Ruth-Anne Miller on the CBS television series "Northern Exposure" from 1990 to 1995, has died. She was 84.

Phillips, a lifelong smoker, died Thursday of pulmonary disease in a suburban Seattle care center.

"I smoke, I eat lots of fat and red meat and don't exercise if I don't have to. This is the best time of life if you have your health, and I do," she told news media in Los Angeles in 1993 at a conference to introduce the fall television shows. Her priority, she added, was "living to be 90 ... 113, would you believe?"

But in 1995, she suffered a ruptured aorta and, in 1999, a broken hip and wrist when she was hit by a car. Earlier, as a Navy wife in 1941, she lived through the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and, in the 1950s, she conquered polio and peritonitis.

However belated, success as an actress was sweet for Phillips, who used much of her newfound wealth to create the Theatre Inside to assist troubled youths at Echo Glen juvenile correctional facility near Snoqualmie, Wash., and to start the Woodinville Repertory Theatre in her Seattle suburb.

"I never wanted to do anything but act," the native of Everett, Wash., told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1993. "I wanted to go to the University of Washington Drama School ... but when I got out of high school, there was no money. It was 1935."

Confronted with the economic reality of the Depression, she moved to California, worked as a bookkeeper and accountant, married and divorced twice and reared four children mostly as a single mother.

Over nearly 50 years, Phillips spent her spare moments acting in community theaters wherever she was. But only at her retirement in the early 1980s did she return to Seattle and enroll at age 67 at the University of Washington.

Realizing she might not last to age 113, she acquired an agent in her freshman year. She soon had so much work -- radio and television commercials and bit parts in eight movies including "Waiting for the Light" starring Shirley MacLaine -- that she never had time to finish her degree.

But Phillips, herself something of a character with character, found her signature role in 1990, when she was cast as the tart-tongued but kindly Miller in "Northern Exposure," a series starring Rob Morrow as a New Yorker working off his medical school expenses in Cicely, Alaska. The series was shot in rural Washington state not far from Phillips' 100-year-old farmhouse.

"I almost didn't audition for the series because ... I don't go out on little cookie jar grandmother things," she said in 1992. "I don't have gray hair, I'm skinny and move too fast. I guess casting directors would see me more as a bag lady."

Peg and Ruth-Anne were a match -- dark-haired, sprightly and usually dressed in something casual like overalls. Phillips even wore bluejeans, a red and white checked blouse, suspenders and sandals to the Emmy Awards ceremony in 1993, when she was nominated for best supporting actress.

Envisioned as a minor recurring role, Ruth-Anne proved so popular that after 16 episodes she became a regular, wisely and calmly solving the whole fictional town's problems.

The actress considered her favorite "Northern Exposure" episode the one in which the shopkeeper's young Native American friend, Ed Chigliak, gave her a wilderness-area grave site for her birthday and the two danced on the site. "That was the most beautiful script I've ever been asked to perform," the actress told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992.

Phillips is survived by two daughters; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services are planned for Saturday in Bellevue, Wash. The family has asked that memorial contributions be sent to the Woodinville Repertory Theatre, P.O. Box 2003, Woodinville, WA 98072.

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