There are some actors who, though they may flicker momentarily into other media, are stage creatures through and through. That was true of Marian Seldes, the graceful, stately, capacious-spirited actress who died on Monday, Oct. 6 at the age of 86, leaving behind a theatrical legacy that spanned more than six decades, beginning with a Broadway debut in Medea opposite Judith Anderson in 1947, and ending—on Broadway, at least—with Terrence McNally’s Deuce opposite Angela Lansbury, in 2007.
In between were some very long stage runs, including a number of plays by Edward Albee (she won a 1967 Tony starring in his Delicate Balance, and was one of his Three Tall Women), and second career as a teacher and mentor to everyone from Robin Williams to David Adjmi.
Over the years, American Theatre wrote about and cited her repeatedly, including in a roundtable with other actor/teachers, in which she offered this memorable quote:
Aristotle said that theatre is a healing art. It’s a medicine. It teaches us that we are more alike than different. It brings us together. It’s being there at the moment it happens. Television and films and the Internet can never replace that immediacy.
And in Feb. 1999 Q&A with Susan Johann (reprinted in full below), she spoke about finding her way as a young, fearful actor, and how she learned as much from failure as success:
Acting is not something you can have a rigid map for. You must be willing to improvise, to accept. Being vulnerable is what keeps you alive. When I was a young actress, I thought acting would get easier, because I would Judith Anderson, Katherine Cornell and John Gielgud seemingly just do it. But it doesn’t get easier—it gets harder. You start to think, “Do I dare do something different?”
She offered further words of caution about the medium in which she’d spent her life:
Theatre’s always alive, always new, because the audience is new. And there’s that sense of danger. When the audience doesn’t love what you’re doing, that sort of stuns. It’s as if you met someone and they pulled their hand back before you’d finished shaking it.
But she concluded with warm a tribute the profession and her peers:
I love consistency. And I love the very human theatre schedule. Everything about life in the theatre is wonderful to me…If I see an actor that I’ve worked with on the street, I feel all the blood rush up to my head. They’re mine; I’m theirs. Anne Sexton called the theatre “a family for my art.” I love that phrase.
The multigenerational family Seldes built around her art already misses her dearly. Broadway theatres will dim their marquees at exactly 7:45 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 8 to honor her.
Below is our full profile Marian Seldes from the February 1999 issue.*
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