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Martha Scott, 90; Original Onstage Emily of 'Our Town'

May 30, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Martha Scott, who originated the role of Emily in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town" and earned a 1940 best actress Oscar nomination re-creating the role in her film debut, has died. She was 90.

Scott, who alternated between theater and films during her more than six-decade career, died Wednesday of natural causes in a hospital in Van Nuys, said her son, Scott Alsop.

Scott launched her career acting in truncated Shakespearean productions in an outdoor theater at the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair.

She appeared in more than 20 films, including "The Howards of Virginia" with Cary Grant, "One Foot in Heaven" with Fredric March, "In Old Oklahoma," with John Wayne, "The Desperate Hours" with Humphrey Bogart, "Sayonara" with Marlon Brando and "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur," both with Charlton Heston. She also did a voice-over for the animated film "Charlotte's Web."

But, said her family, her true and lasting passion was always the theater.

She remained active as an actress on Broadway through the decades until 1991, when she played Goody Nurse in "The Crucible," the first production of Tony Randall's National Actors' Theatre.

"She was enormously touching in it -- fragile and vulnerable and good. Everything that she was," Randall said Thursday. "She was a lovely, lovely person. Totally dedicated to the theater and to acting."

In 1968, Scott joined Henry Fonda and Robert Ryan in forming a theatrical production company called the Plumstead Playhouse in New York, which produced numerous classic revivals with all-star casts. It later became the Plumstead Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

In the late 1970s, the company produced Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's "First Monday in October," a comedy-drama about the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, starring Fonda and Jane Alexander. It premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Scott also co-produced the 1981 film version of the play, starring Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh.

"Twelve Angry Men," her last production as producer, opened the Henry Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in 1985. Scott's star on the Walk of Fame is at the entrance to the theater.

Born in Jamesport, Mo., on Sept. 22, 1912, Scott developed an interest in theater in high school and earned a bachelor's degree in drama from the University of Michigan in 1934.

After her acting stint at the World's Fair, the company went on the road doing one-night stands. She then headed to New York City, where she had a variety of jobs while making the casting rounds.

During the winter of 1937-38, she was living with two other girls in the Algonquin Hotel and having no luck finding acting jobs. The role of Emily in "Our Town" changed that.

"Jed Harris was directing, and he had fired two Emilys," Scott recalled in a 1989 interview with The Times. "They could do the first two acts but not the third, where Emily has died. Jed called the company together before lunch one day. They were rehearsing in New York, and there were just eight days before the first tryout at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He said they were going to close down because he couldn't find an Emily.

"He asked if anybody in the company knew an actress they thought could play Emily. Evelyn Varden and Philip Coolidge had both seen me, and they suggested me. Harris said, 'Have her here by 4 o'clock.' "

Scott, who previously could not even get past the casting agent's door, read for Harris, who said, "My God, this is Emily." She was in rehearsal by the end of the afternoon.

The play, which is set in a small New England town and portrays the universal cycles of birth, love and death, was not well-received by most of the Boston critics, who deemed it boring -- all except Eliot Norton, the dean of Boston critics, who was so moved when he saw it a few nights later that he went backstage to congratulate the company.

But the cast was still taken aback on opening night in New York when they were greeted by a long silence at the final curtain, followed by muffled applause.

"We couldn't imagine why it was such soft applause," Scott recalled. "Then we saw it was because so many people had their handkerchiefs in their hands."

Alsop said his mother used a cemetery in her hometown to prepare herself for the third act of the play, which takes place in a small-town cemetery.

"She told me she used that place as her image because it's so serene and beautiful," he said. He also said that her deceased relatives -- the Scotts and the McKinleys -- "became the Gibbs and the Webbs in the play."

In the late 1970s, Alsop and his mother visited the cemetery in Jamesport. And, he said, "That's where she wanted to rest."

Scott's first husband was Carleton Alsop, a radio and film producer. They were divorced in 1946.

Her second husband, to whom she was married for 52 years, was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powell, who had begun playing piano in the Benny Goodman band at age 17.

During Powell's 15 years on the music faculty at Yale, the couple lived in New Canaan, Conn.

They moved to Los Angeles in 1969, when Powell became the founding dean of the School of Music at California Institute of the Arts. He died in 1998.

In addition to her son, she is survived by two daughters, Mary Powell Harpel and Kathleen Powell, both of Los Angeles, and a brother, Charles Scott, of San Diego.

A memorial service is pending.

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