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."
Wilson received a break in 1952 when she was cast in the Broadway play "Picnic" by William Inge.
"There was a troubled, sad guy," she says. "I remember [director] Joshua Logan wanted too change the ending of the play because he thought Inge's end was not commercial enough. I remember the day he told Bill of the change he was making and Bill came out of the dressing room, walked across the stage and out of the theater and we never saw him again."
A happier memory from the play was her friendship with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman who were in the production (Woodward was an understudy). "I can still remember the day he came into my dressing room and we had this big mirror and I looked in the mirror and saw his eyes and went, 'Oh my God, these are the bluest eyes I've ever seen.' "
She and Rita Shaw were the only actors from the Broadway production to also do the film.
Wilson said there was no sense that "The Graduate" would become such a film classic. But she does remember when she arrived for filming being told she wasn't good-looking enough for the role "so they said they were going to fix me up and they pinned my neck back and put that beautiful hairpiece on me. I have to say, I look good in 'The Graduate,' so God bless them."
Being cast in the nature-turns-on-humans film "The Birds" was "a scary experience," she says. On the flight to California for the filming some birds attacked the window of the front of the plane, she says. And when she was walking to the set one day a bird flew down and plunged into her back for no apparent reason. "When I told Mr. Hitchcock, he said, [and here she does a perfect deadpan impersonation of the stoic director], 'I am not at all surprised.' "
On the 1964 TV series "East Side/West Side," which starred George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson, "It was a big success and dear George wanted Cicely to have more of a role, even have some sort of a relationship with [the African-American actress] and CBS said, 'Are you crazy?' And they canceled the series."
Her last film, "Hyde Park on the Hudson" "was a great experience except for Bill Murray, who was a son of a bitch. Before we started filming we had a reading of the script and I was sitting in a chair and he walks in and jumps on my lap and started rocking back and firth, saying 'Mommy, mommy.' Well, honey, I was 90 and I've had plenty of surgery in my hips, stomach and all over and I was screaming. He got up and walked away and never spoke to me again — and he didn't want to have anything to do with the rest of the cast either."
And her advice to young actors?
"It's one thing to be talented but the other thing is connections, with agents, with people, that's what makes a difference and from the beginning I've had wonderful representation."
She also spoke of two great loves in her life and the painful personal choices she had to make in order to have a career.
"That's why I didn't marry," she says. "But [the choice] was right for me. I didn't want to give up my career. That's what kept me alive, kept me going. I couldn't stop — didn't want to stop — being all these different characters."