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Carrie Nye, 69; Versatile Actress, Wife of Dick Cavett

July 18, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Carrie Nye, a Tony Award-nominated actress who occasionally appeared on television and in films but remained best known for her stage work, which ranged from musicals to Shakespeare, has died. She was 69.

Nye died of lung cancer Friday at her home in Manhattan, said her husband, comedian and TV talk-show host Dick Cavett.

Cavett, who attributed his wife's cancer to smoking, told The Times on Monday that "she tried to quit a couple of times" but smoking "became part of her early persona; perhaps based on Tallulah Bankhead or Marlene Dietrich."

The combination of what Cavett described as "her Southern-ness, deep voice and a somewhat physical resemblance" to Bankhead resulted in Nye's often being compared with the flamboyant Broadway star.

Cavett said, however, that no one on the street ever mistook his wife for Bankhead until she played her in the 1980 TV movie "The Scarlett O'Hara War," for which Nye earned an Emmy nomination.

The Mississippi-born Nye made her Broadway debut in 1960 in "A Second String." She earned a Tony nomination in 1965 for her role as a society woman in the musical "Half a Sixpence."

She also appeared on Broadway in Ruth Gordon's play "A Very Rich Woman" and a 1980 revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," among others. Two of her off-Broadway credits are Michael Cacoyannis' 1963 production of "The Trojan Women" and a 1972 production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound."

Among her film credits are "The Group," "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," and "Creepshow." On television, she did a 1984 stint on "The Guiding Light."

"She really was an extraordinary actress," said writer-producer Ellen Weston, who first knew Nye when they were young actresses at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., around 1960.

"I remember when she did Blanche in 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' " Weston told The Times on Monday. "Even as a kid, her understanding of that character was extraordinary, so beyond the life knowledge of a 21-year-old."

Offstage, Nye has been described as "wickedly witty," a phrase that Cavett said best sums up his wife's humor.

"To me it does," he said, "and it probably would for a few victims of it."

A prime example of his wife's wit, he said, was a 1973 essay she wrote for Time magazine about working with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the critically blasted two-part TV-movie "Divorce His Divorce Hers."

Describing her first meeting with Burton at a studio in Munich, Nye wrote:

"My acting chore for the day was to be introduced to Himself and launch without further ado into a long, loud and boring scene during which I was to be 1) obstreperous, 2) a general nuisance and 3) drunk as a billy goat. All went as anticipated except for one detail. The Star had beaten me to the punch."

The daughter of a bank president, Nye was born Carolyn Nye McGeoy on Oct. 14, 1936, in Greenwood, Miss. After attending Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., she went to the Yale Drama School, where she met Cavett, then a Yale senior taking a few classes in the drama school.

Nye and Cavett, her only immediate survivor, were married in 1964.

Cavett said Nye was "devoted and professional and disciplined in her art," but "she didn't take every job that came along, or even some good ones she might have liked doing. I never questioned it."

In later years, she virtually quit acting altogether, Cavett said, although she returned to acting for the last time in 2003 with a role on "The Guiding Light" as the evil Carolyn Carruthers -- a part written by her friend Weston, then head writer of the soap opera.

"When you write something like that, you need someone who can give you all the shadings of evil, of charm, of wit, and so, of course, I thought of Carrie Nye," Weston said. "She was such an interesting mixture of tremendous wit, tremendous intelligence, great style and a total lack of interest in doing things the way anybody else did them.

"She was totally her own person and yet this was a woman who, if you were a friend of hers, would go to the wall for you on any level. She was a woman who in the early days of AIDS nursed friends of hers, allowed them to stay on property that she had and took care of them. She was the most interesting combination of humanist and iconoclast."

In 1997, a house Nye and Cavett had bought in the mid-1960s -- Tick Hall, an 1883 shingle-style cottage designed by the firm of McKim, Mead & (Stanford) White in Montauk on Long Island -- was destroyed by fire.

Nye, however, was determined to rebuild the house as it was, a process chronicled in the 2003 documentary "From the Ashes: The Life and Times of Tick Hall."

"It was the work of a genius," Nye told Newsday in 1998. "You can't put a person back together, but you can do it with a house."

Said Weston: "She didn't deal with loss or the vicissitudes of life in an ordinary way. She dealt with everything with such tremendous courage and dignity."

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