Suzanne Pleshette

Suzanne Pleshette obituary in “The Guardian” in 2008.

Her Guardian obituary by Ronald Bergan:

There are two distinct memories of Suzanne Pleshette, who has died from lung cancer aged 70: the sensual, dark-haired beauty of 1960s movie melodramas, and the more mature and light-hearted but still sexy wife in The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78) on television.

In the former part of her career, Pleshette, elegantly tailored, would often play rich, young and independent girls. For example, in her second feature, Rome Adventure (1962), she is a librarian, dismissed for stocking a “risqué” book, who takes off for a touristy Rome to find romance. Among the ruins, she finally opts for the American art student Troy Donahue over the Latin charms of Rossano Brazzi.

In 1964, Pleshette married blond, blue-eyed teen idol Donahue, though the union only lasted a year. During that time, the couple co-starred in Raoul Walsh’s western, A Distant Trumpet (1964). In it, Donahue is an expressionless lieutenant defending a fort who falls in love with Pleshette, the wife of his commanding officer, both stars being rather too 1960s in looks to be convincing characters of the Old West.

While the career of Donahue, who had made his reputation in “generation gap” dramas of the early 60s, went on the slide, Pleshette’s career bloomed. Apart from A Distant Trumpet, she appeared in two other films in 1964, Fate is the Hunter, as an air hostess, the sole survivor of a plane crash, and the absurd Youngblood Hawke as a publisher’s editor nurturing the writing talent of a truck driver.

Pleshette was born in New York City: her mother was a dancer, and her father a stage manager. She graduated from Manhattan’s high school of performing arts and then attended Syracuse University, before appearing on Broadway in a small role in Compulsion (1957). She would return to Broadway four more times, most notably in The Miracle Worker (1959), replacing Anne Bancroft in the role of Annie Sullivan, teacher of the blind and deaf Helen Keller. It was her greatest acting achievement.

A Rage to Live (1965) gave Pleshette the chance to pull out all the stops as a “nymphomaniac”, whose promiscuity only leads to loneliness and despair. However, as well as she did, only the likes of Barbara Stanwyck or Susan Hayward would have brought enough flamboyance and passion to rescue the film.

In Nevada Smith (1966), opposite Steve McQueen, Pleshette, as a backwoods girl whose beauty is still apparent behind the grime of a swamp, has a good death scene after being bitten by a snake. Among her more cheerful roles were those in three innocuous Walt Disney productions: The Ugly Dachshund (1966), though she is upstaged by dogs; The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967), in which, as a singer in a saloon, she is the nearest thing one can get to sexy in a Disney movie; and the love interest in Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968).

Parallel to her feature film work, which began in the Jerry Lewis movie The Geisha Boy (1958), Pleshette was active on television from 1957, with roles in Have Gun – Will Travel, Naked City, Route 66, Ben Casey and a 1960 episode (directed by Paul Henreid) in Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This led to Hitchcock casting her in The Birds (1963), in which she is significantly contrasted with the “cool blonde” Tippi Hedren. As a warm, garden-loving schoolteacher, she is one of the first fatal victims of the murderous birds, dying while protecting a child.

· Suzanne Pleshette, actor, born January 31 1937; died January 19 2008

Her Guardian obituary can be accessed on-line here.

Nine years later, Pleshette played a very different schoolteacher in The Bob Newhart Show. After having made several scintillating appearances on Johnny Carson’s talk show, in which she made ample use of her celebrated contralto speaking voice, Pleshette was offered the role of Emily Hartley, the smart, funny, attractive “career woman” wife of psychologist Bob (deadpan comedian Bob Newhart), the stable centre of the crazy happenings in the Hartley household. Unusually for American sitcoms of the period, the couple had no children (like Pleshette herself), and they shared a double bed in which they discussed (and solved) the problems of the day.

After the show ended, Pleshette continued to be active on television, her last appearances being in three episodes of Will and Grace (2002-04), playing the estranged mother of Megan Mullally’s character Karen Walker.

In 2006, Pleshette underwent chemotherapy for lung cancer, subsequently catching pneumonia and dying of respiratory failure. Pleshette’s second marriage was to Texas oilman Tim Gallagher, from 1968 until his death in 2000, and then to actor Tom Poston, with whom she had appeared in the Broadway comedy The Golden Fleecing over 40 years previously. He died last year.

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