Tammy Grimes, a raspy-voiced actress who was one of Broadway’s brightest stars of the 1960s, winning Tony awards as the title character in the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and for a revival of Noel Coward’s comedy “Private Lives,” died Oct. 30 at a hospital in Englewood, N.J. She was 82.
A nephew, Duncan MacArthur, said the cause was not yet known.
Grimes occasionally appeared on television and in films, but she was best known for her work on stage, winning admirers for her deft comic timing and scene-stealing energy. Her breakthrough came in Meredith Willson’s 1960 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” the embellished true story of a poor girl from Missouri who takes high society by storm and survives the sinking of the Titanic.
Grimes performed the role on Broadway for two years, winning extravagant praise from critics, even if they didn’t always care for the play itself.
“When she clutches a broom, throws a tablecloth over her shoulders and wears a pail on her head like the nobility she hopes to be, you don’t doubt that she will make it,” New York Times theater critic Howard Taubman wrote.
Even though Grimes was on stage for all but seven minutes of the show, she won the Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical because, according to rules then in effect, her name did not appear above the show’s title on the marquee.
“After I won,” she later quipped, “they put me above the title.”
Her Broadway co-star, Harve Presnell, went on to star in the 1964 film version of the play, but Grimes’s role was given to Debbie Reynolds.
Even before that, Grimes seemed aware that her talents were too rarefied to make her a Hollywood star. She had unconventional looks, with unkempt hair, a prominent chin and pointed nose, and she spoke with a finishing school accent that was somehow wispy and rough, a distinctive blend of British English and Broadway.
“I know it’s hard for a housewife watching in Kansas City to identify with me,” she said in 1960. “But then I don’t want to be ’America’s Sweetheart.’ I’d rather be something they don’t quite understand.”
Her theatrical approach was just right for Coward, the cosmopolitan English playwright and performer who first cast Grimes in his lighthearted romp “Look After Lulu” in 1958, after seeing her perform in a cabaret show.
She later appeared in “High Spirits,” a 1964 musical adaptation of Coward’s play “Blithe Spirit.” In 1969, she starred as Amanda Prynne in a revival of his classic farce “Private Lives.”
The fast-paced comedy is about a divorced couple who marry other people, then discover on their honeymoons that they are staying in adjoining hotel rooms. Naturally, amid all the confusion, passion and malicious wit, they fall back in love.
Grimes “plays every cheap trick in the histrionic book with supreme aplomb and adorable confidence,” theater critic Clive Barnes wrote in the Times. “Her voice moans, purrs, splutters; she gesticulates with her eyes, almost shouts with her hair. She is all campy, impossible woman, a lovable phony with the hint of tigress about her, so ridiculously artificial that she just has to be for real.”
This time, with her name above the title, Grimes won the Tony for best actress.
Tammy Lee Grimes was born Jan. 30, 1934, in Lynn, Mass. Her father was a country club manager.
She attended private school in Massachusetts and at age 13 was determined to be an actress. She graduated in 1953 from Stephens College, then a two-year women’s college in Columbia, Mo.
She moved to New York, studied for two years at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, acted in summer stock, appeared on TV dramas and was an understudy to Kim Stanley in the 1955 Broadway production of “Bus Stop.”
Grimes also acted in productions of Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario, and in 1956 was married to Canadian-born actor Christopher Plummer. Their daughter, actress Amanda Plummer, was born in 1957.
Grimes appeared in several films, including “Three Bites of the Apple” (1967), “Play It As It Lays” (1972) and “Mr. North” (1988), and starred in a short-lived, self-titled sitcom in the 1960s. She appeared periodically in cabaret performances, from the 1950s until 2010, but her career revolved around Broadway.
In 1976, she was in the original cast of Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” in which she played three different women, and played the virtuous Elmire in a 1977 revival of Molière’s classic French farce “Tartuffe.” She also played a haughty veteran stage star in the original 1980 Broadway production of “42nd Street.”
In 1979, she appeared with her daughter in a New York production of Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.” She last appeared on Broadway in 1989 in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending,” playing a sheriff’s wife given to spiritual visions.
Her marriages to Plummer and actor Jeremy Slate ended in divorce. In 1971, she married composer Richard J. Bell Jr., who died in 2005. Survivors include her daughter.
“It’s very bad to think, when you’re acting,” Grimes once told The Washington Post. “You must just be sensitive, you must just react to everything that comes at you in life, and . . . you have to be interested in all that big world out there loving you.”