Remembering Theater’s Grand Dame Marian Seldes
By: Ellis Nassour
Marian Seldes, who passed away after a three-year slide into darkness, told me once: "One of the most enthralling moments for me in every play I do, is crossing from Stage Left to Stage Right, or vice versa, depending on where the stage door is, and ravishing a moment there – just me and the ghost light."
For anyone who knew Miss Seldes, and for hundreds of you who may have just run into her on the street or in a supermarket aisle and said, "Hello," you can hear her dulcet whisper as she spoke, not at a distance, but really up-close- and-personal as if you were one of her beloved friends.
One evening in November, 2005, Miss Seldes was walking across West 12th Street, on her way to dinner at a friend’s apartment. On my way there, I ran into her on the corner of Sixth Avenue as she was embroiled in a lengthy conversation with a tall, elegantly clothed woman in colorful tribal African fabrics and the most amazing turban. I stood aside to escort Miss Seldes the rest of the way. The woman had seen her that summer opposite Nathan Lane in Primary Stages’ production of Terrence McNally’s Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams at 59E59.
The conversation didn’t seem to be winding down. I gently nudged Miss Seldes who greeted me, as often was the case with anyone she met, even total strangers, effusively. I told her that we were going to be late. They exchanged long goodbyes and Miss Seldes gave one of her customary curtesies. As we walked away, Miss Seldes said, "Darling, I’m sorry I didn’t introduce you, but I don’t know her." I replied, "You don’t?" "No," she replied, "but she knew me." [BTW, this play was the one in which Miss Seldes famously uttered the F-word.]
Miss Seldes was so fond of Lane that she very much wanted to see him in The Addams Family. It was November 2010, during a period when Miss Seldes wasn’t always having an easy time getting about. Tickets were arranged and a note was left for Lane, who was known to frequently sneak out the lobby doors. As we left Miss Seldes’ building on Central Park South, I ran ahead to hail a cab. No luck there. Miss Seldes tapped me on shoulder and said, "Darling, here comes the Number Seven bus." We boarded, and then I found there was no stop at 46th Street.
While Miss Seldes animatedly chatted away with people on the bus, a number of whom recognized her, I asked the driver if there was a way he’d left us off there. He wasn’t sure who she was, but said she was a Number Seven regular. He let us exit at the 46th Street corner, but it wasn’t so easy to get Miss Seldes off, of entertaining her fans.
We were greeted warmly by the Lunt-Fontanne house manager, who escorted us to the seats, even brought refreshments at intermission. She told us she’d have us escorted backstage. As the curtain calls ended, we were being taken to the far right exit door, where the BC/EFA bucket brigade was collecting. I pulled out my wallet to donate. Not to embarrass myself in Miss Seldes presence, I went to donate a fiver. Miss Seldes turned to me aghast, handed me her purse. "Darling, grab a twenty. I’m on the board!"
The ensemble member collecting was so excited to meet Miss Seldes, who joined her in rapturous conversation, that she forgot she was colleting. Finally, out the door, where the stage doorman was waiting for her, Miss Seldes was recognized by a number of people in the line. In a New York minute, it was like Miss Seldes was the star of the show. She was being photographed and signing autographs. We finally were able to get her into the Green Room, where she was seated in quite the regal chair that befitted her. Members of the cast came by to visit.
It was explained that Lane was taking a shower and would be down soon. When he arrived, it was a love feast. As he embraced Miss Seldes and knelt before her, she appraised his performance, actually one of the saving graces of the show, as if he was Olivier/Gielgud/Lunt reincarnated. Lane was unabashedly moved and seemed in no hurry to run.
Afterward, Miss Seldes announced she was hungry. The reservation I made was scratched in favor of going to Sardi’s, where, when we entered, it was like one of Miss Seldes’ opening nights.
In his appraisal of her career, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times: "When Marian Seldes served ham, it always tasted like caviar. More than any stage performer of her generation, this enduringly vital actress … made overacting feel like a deeply elegant craft, wrought in carefully carved flourishes and filigree."
I have a feeling Miss Seldes would have thought that to be a supreme compliment.
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Marian Seldes: Career Highlights
Studied acting under renowned acting instructor Sanford Meisner, New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse;
1949, Featured in TV production, Macbeth;
1954, Film debut, The Lonely Night, a TV docudrama produced by the U. S. Public Health Service on mental health;
1963, Obie Award, The Ginger Man;
1967 to 1991, faculty member, Juilliard School of Drama, where her students included Christine Baranski, Kelsey Grammer, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Patti LuPone, Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams;
1967 Tony Award, Best Featured Actress, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance;
1970s, Recurring guest on CBS Radio’s Mystery Theater;
1971, Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations, Actress (Play), Father’s Day;
1977, Obie Award, Isadora Duncan Sleeps with the Russian Navy;
1978, Co-starred in Deathtrap, never missing a performance over five years – an achievement that won her entry into the Guinness Book of World Records;
1978, Tony Award nomination, Best Featured Actress, Play, Deathtrap;
1978, Published autobiography, The Bright Lights;
1983, Outer Critics Circle Award, Painting Churches;
1994, Co-starred in Albee’s Three Tall Women, Outer Critics Circle Award;
1996, Inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame;
1998, Drama Desk nomination, Outstanding Featured Actress, Ivanov;
1999, Tony Award nomination, Best Actress, Play, for the revival of Ring Round the Moon;
2001, Drama Desk nomination, Outstanding Actress (Play), Albee’s The Play About the Baby;
2000, The Madge Evans & Sidney Kingsley Award for Excellence in Theater;
2001, Obie Award for Sustained Achievement.
2001 and 2005, Fordham University faculty;
2003, Nominated for her fifth Tony Award, Best Featured Actress, Play, for LCT’s Dinner at Eight [2002; a last-minute replacement for ailing Dorothy Loudon in the role of Carlotta Vance];
2003, Beckett/Albee, opposite Brian Murray;
2003, Edwin Booth Award;
2004, The first annual Seldes-Kanin Fellowship Awards;
2005-2007, Honorary Chair, Theater Hall of Fame;
2005, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, opposite Nathan Lane
2006, Co-chair, 35th Anniversary, Theater Hall of Fame benefit.
2007, Duece, opposite Angela Lansbury
Film highlights: Mona Lisa Smile, The Haunting, Celebrity, Town and Country, Home Alone 3, Affliction, Tom and Huck, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, Digging to China, The Greatest Story Ever Told [a memorable Herodias], The Big Fisherman, The Light in the Forest, Crime and Punishment U.S.A. and The True Story of Jesse James.
TV roles include: Club House, If These Walls Could Talk 2, Truman, Gertrude Stein and a Companion. Guest appearances: Remember WENN, Cosby, Wings, Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote, Law & Order, Othello [Emilia to Walter Matthau’s Iago], General Electric Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason and Gunsmoke.