RIP to the ultimate lady who lunches.
1. Melba Snyder, Pal Joey (1952)
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More than a decade after the original 1940 production of John O’Hara’s musical about manipulative small-time nightclub performer Joey Evans (Gene Kelly) closed, Stritch was cast as part of the 1952 revival cast. She played ambitious reporter Melba Snyder, and her stand-out song “Zip,” about her interview with Gypsy Rose Lee, is still a fan favorite.
2. Grace Hoylard, Bus Stop (1955)
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=p1d8XdjeCL8.
In William Inge’s drama, set in a rural Kansas diner during a snowstorm, Stritch played diner owner Grace. The performance earned her her first Tony nomination, for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
3. Maggie Harris, Goldilocks (1958)
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=rAmV27s0VnA.
This musical parody of the silent film era earned Stritch her first true starring role as Maggie Harris, a musical comedy actress who’s retiring to marry into high society. But a silent filmmaker cons her by convincing her she’s contractually bound to star in his movie.
4. Mimi Paragon, Sail Away (1961)
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Stritch’s next starring gig didn’t come quite as easy. In 1961, she was cast in Noël Coward’s Sail Away in a relatively minor role and was only promoted to the starring role of Mimi Paragon when opera singer Jean Fenn proved “too operatic” for the part. Soon, Fenn’s role was eliminated and all the songs went to Stritch. “Every time she went onstage, [she] was a sensation,” Coward said of the actress’ performance, which earned her a Best Actress in a Musical Tony nomination in 1962.
5. Joanne, Company (1970)
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=virv-1o2KjE.
In Stephen Sondheim’s revolutionarily adult musical about a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship, Stritch played the part that would follow her for the rest of her career: acerbic and cynical Joanne. And, along with the role came the song that would follow her for the rest of her career: “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The performance earned Stritch her third Tony nod.
6. Dorothy McNab, Two’s Company (1975-1979)
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Stritch’s first starring TV role was Dorothy McNab, an American thriller novelist living in London who hires an English butler, Robert Hiller (Donald Sinden), to help her around the house, where she spends most of her days writing. Stritch sang the comedy’s theme song with Sinden and the performance also earned her her first BAFTA nomination.
7. Diane, September (1987)
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After a stay in London throughout most of the ’70s and early ’80s, Stritch returned stateside and Woody Allen cast her in this drama as Diane, a former movie star whose daughter Lane (Mia Farrow) is recovering from a suicide attempt. “Stritch’s roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator, can’t be ignored,” John Stark wrote for People magazine at the time. Allen later cast her in his comedy Small Time Crooks in 2000.
8. Mrs. McGee, The Cosby Show (1989-1990)
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=fxGGOk6Sh1s.
Stritch did a lot of television after she returned to America, but one of her standout roles was as Rudy’s stern schoolteacher Mrs. McGee on The Cosby Show. She wore her signature glasses and, of course, there was a little singing and dancing involved too.
9. Lanie Stieglitz, Law & Order (1992 & 1997)
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Stritch’s other memorable TV role at the time was on Law & Order as women’s rights attorney Lanie Stieglitz, offering amazing lines like, “Either you give me parole or I give you the biggest headache since Susan B. Anthony asked to vote.” The performance earned Stritch her first Emmy Award and she reprised the role five years later in another episode of the series.
10. Parthy, Show Boat (1994)
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=At2bdj5QZhY.
It wasn’t exactly her meatiest role, but Stritch returned to the lights of the Great White Way playing Cap’n Andy’s cantankerous wife Parthy in the 1994 Broadway revival of Show Boat. “She can still put across a song because it comes from her heart and not merely from her lips,” Time’s Michael Walsh wrote.
11. Claire, A Delicate Balance (1996)
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Thirty years after its debut, Stritch starred in a revival of Edward Albee’s play as chain-smoking and always-drinking Claire, the sister of upper-middle-class suburbanite Agnes. Variety’s Jeremy Gerard said Stritch was offering “a master class” on stage, and Stritch told CBS Sunday Morning, “I’m just beginning to feel accepted.” A Delicate Balance led to Stritch’s fourth and final Tony nomination for acting.
12. Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2001)
HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection
It was Stritch’s one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a summation of her life and career, that finally earned her a Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event at 76. She also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. The revealing show surprised audiences with information like the fact that she dated Marlon Brando. The show was a critical smash with Newsweek’s Marc Peyser noting at the time, “At Liberty is in a class by itself, a biting, hilarious and even touching tour-de-force tour of Stritch’s career and life.” “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Is this the last thing you’re going to do?’” Stritch recalled in the show. “‘In your dreams,’” she replied.
13. Colleen Donaghy, 30 Rock (2007-2012)
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Indeed, Stritch was hardly done. At 82, the actress started her run on 30 Rock as Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Badlwin) tough-as-nails, overbearing, booze-loving mom. Stritch was exposed to a whole new audience and a slew of Emmy nominations for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013). In her last episode in the show’s seventh and final season, Colleen dies of a heart attack, but not before uttering these last words to Jack: “I just want you to be happy.”
14. Grandma Babcock, ParaNorman (2012)
Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection
In a shift from playing characters that are largely described as “brassy” and “caustic,” Stritch voiced the sweet and nurturing, but deceased, Grandma Babcock in this animated movie about a boy who can, yes, see dead people. “Through Elaine’s incredible and warmly textured voice, you can hear the life lived, and that was so important for her scenes,” producer Arianne Sutner said. “With her impeccable timing, she makes her character sympathetic but never saccharine.”
15. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)
Sundance Selects/Courtesy Everett Collection
One of her final major works was the revealing documentary filmed over the course of the last few years of Stritch’s life. Critics adored the movie, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013. “I don’t think I’m gonna die tomorrow or even two weeks from now, or even ever. I just don’t know — who the hell knows what’s gonna happen to them? Nobody! Isn’t that comforting? Nobody has a clue. I like that we don’t know. And I like that it’s somebody else’s decision, not mine,” she said.