There are actors whose name you instantly recognize, the stars you know by a single monicker: Meryl, Julia, Debbie. Liza, Shirley.
Then there are others you've seen giving countless supporting performances that help ground the work in a truthful reality but whose names might not leap to mind. These are character actors and when you see their faces you know you're in good hands.
Elizabeth Wilson is a character actress whose work I've admired for many decades on stage, screen and television. She now lives in Branford with her younger sister, and at 93 is mostly retired. (Mostly, I say, because she still does readings and master classes and just two years ago had a significant part in the film "Hyde Park on Hudson" where she played Sarah Ann Delano Roosevelt, the formidable mother to Bill Murray's FDR.)
Among her scores of film roles are her movie debut in 1955's "Picnic" with William Holden, "The Goddess" with Kim Stanley, "A Child Is Waiting" with Judy Garland, "Grace Quigley" with Katharine Hepburn, "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" with Lily Tomlin and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."
She played Roz the office snitch in "Nine to Five," Fester's mother in "The Addams Family" and Benjamin Braddock's mom in "The Graduate," directed by Mike Nichols who used Wilson in seven stage and film projects, including "Catch 22," "The Day of the Dolphin" and "Regarding Henry."
On stage, she won a Tony Award in 1972 for David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones," and was memorable in revivals of "You Can't Take It With You," "Morning's at Seven, " "Threepenny Opera," "A Delicate Balance," "Uncle Vanya," and "Ah, Wilderness!" which began at Long Wharf Theatre.
Not enough? On TV she was a frequent actor in the days of early live TV as well as in the groundbreaking series "East Side/West Side," "Dark Shadows" and the mini-series "Nutcracker," where she earned an Emmy nomination.
"I had no desire to be a star and a star's responsibility," she says in her distinct, straight-forward Midwestern manner. Beneath a lilting voice that veers from sweet-tinged nostalgia ("Oh, she was lovely," she often remarks about colleagues from her past) to sharp-edged observations — not to mention a few obscenities — about those who behaved badly.
"I wanted to be a character actress and be able to do all kinds of parts and work on a lot of things. That was my unconscious choice. I wanted to be an undercover actress."
She grew up with her parents in her wealthy German grandfather's enormous, six-floor mansion in Grand Rapids, Mich. "It was a very uncomfortable situation," she says of her father's tense relationship with her grandfather and her surreal setting. "When I was about 8, I used to go into one of the rooms in the mansion and I would open a magazine like the Ladies Home Journal, and I would see these characters on the pages and then become them, talking back and forth. That was my escape from my strange environment. I wanted to be another person."
Her mother picked up on her imaginative talents and "found somebody who was interested in the theater to teach me and before you knew it, I was working with the local civic theater."
When she was in her teens, she decided she wanted to be a professional actress, but her grandfather was not happy. "He said, 'How will she make her living? On her back?' That's what some people thought.''
Wilson arrived in New York in 1942 where she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with [movement teacher/choreographer] Martha Graham and the great [acting teacher] Sanford Meisner — "And he changed my life. When I auditioned for him he said, 'You have talent. Now I'm going to teach you how to act. He was incredible.'"
But some thought Wilson's demeanor was too delicate and ladylike for the rough and tumble world of show business.
"[Actor] Jo Van Fleet was in the class, too and we shared an apartment together. She was a tough lady. One day she said to me, 'You're never going to make it because you're not tough enough. You're too fragile. So I want you to learn to say this word. Now listen to me, say, 'f—-.' And she and this young man she was with at the time pinned me against the wall, ordering me to say it. And so I said, [she demonstrates ever-so-faintly and tentatively] 'Ffffff———.' " Wilson lets out a sharp laugh. "She was an amazing woman."
Wilson's first professional acting job got off to a smashing start. She was with a USO theatrical company performing the play "Where's Charley?" in the South Pacific in 1944, performing before trpops, sometimes just a handful on seas filled with Japanese submarines. The tour was made even more memorable when her small, low-flying plane crashed in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. "But we weren't hurt, thank God."
She recalls in the late '40s a Hollywood agent offered her a contract but only if she underwent plastic surgery for her chin and nose and changed her "common" name." "I said, 'I don't think so,' so I still have a big nose, crooked jaw and common name."
Wilson received a boost when the famed actress Helen Hayes saw her in a Neighborhood Playhouse production of a play and wrote a letter on her behalf for Wilson to take to producers. It read: "This is a remarkable young actress. Any one of us who can help her would be proud to boast of it some day."