Suzanne Pleshette

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Suzanne Pleshette Pencil Portrait
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Suzanne Plachette was the husky voiced brunette actress who starred in a string of Hollywood features, television dramas and comedies, in addition to becoming a favourite of the Disney organisation in the 60’s and 70’s.

Her low-key performances often transcended thankless roles in bad movies. She made her film debut in a 1958 Jerry Lewis comedy, “The Geisha Boy,” and came to the attention of teenage audiences in her second movie, “Rome Adventure” (1962), a good-girl, bad-girl romance opposite Troy Donahue, the beautiful blond heartthrob of the moment. (Ms. Pleshette played the virgin.) After making another film together in 1964, she and Mr. Donahue married, but lasted only eight months.

Alfred Hitchcock fans knew Ms. Pleshette best as the pretty small-town teacher who not only loses the guy (Rod Taylor) to the blonde (Tippi Hedren), but is also pecked to death by an angry flock in “The Birds” (1963). A Method actress, the master of suspense was unsure how to handle her. “Hitch didn’t know what to do with me,”__ the actress revealed in a 1999 Film Quarterly interview with other Hitchcock heroines. __“He regretted the day that he hired me.”_Many disagreed with that conclusion.

An only child, Ms. Pleshette attended the New York High School of Performing Arts, then Syracuse University and transferred to Finch College, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Her professional career began in 1957 with her television debut, a single episode in a short-lived adventure series, “Harbourmaster,” and her Broadway debut in “Compulsion,” a drama about the Leopold and Loeb murder case. In 1959 she appeared in “Golden Fleecing,” a comedy set in Venice, opposite Tom Poston, whom she would marry more than four decades later.

Her real Broadway triumph came in February 1961 when she replaced Anne Bancroft (who had just won a Tony Award) as Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker,” opposite 14-year-old Patty Duke. Her reviews were admiring.

Ms. Pleshette returned to Broadway once more, some two decades later. “Special Occasions” (1982), a play about a divorced couple, was so ravaged by theater critics that it closed after a series of previews and one regular performance. Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, excoriated the play, but praised Ms. Pleshette’s performance: “The throaty voice, wide-open smiles and quick intelligence are as alluring as ever,” he wrote.

Ms. Pleshette had an active film career in the 1960s and the first half of the ’70s. She starred in several Disney movies, including “The Shaggy D.A.” (1976). Early on she dealt with heavier subjects, playing a flight attendant who survives an airline crash in “Fate Is the Hunter” (1964), a sexually compulsive heiress in “A Rage to Live” (1965) and a book editor trying to save a successful young author from himself in “Youngblood Hawke” (1964). Eventually, though, she seemed to settle into comedies, like “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” (1969), about a busload of unhappy American tourists.

But it was in television that she received the greatest recognition. She was nominated for an Emmy Award four times, first in 1962 for a guest performance in “Dr. Kildare,” twice for “The Bob Newhart Show” (1977 and 1978) and in 1991 for playing the title role in the television movie “Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean.”

She was never in a hit series like “The Bob Newhart Show” again (although there were efforts), but she continued to appear in television movies and as a guest in popular series into the 21st century. Her last role was the estranged mother of Megan Mullally’s character in several episodes of NBC’s “Will & Grace” between 2002 and 2004.

After her divorce from Mr. Donahue, Ms. Pleshette married twice. In 1968 she wed Tom Gallagher, a businessman, a marriage that lasted until his death in 2000. In 2001 she wed Mr. Poston, her long-ago Broadway co-star, who had also been a guest star on “The Bob Newhart Show” and a regular in Mr. Newhart’s second sitcom, “Newhart,” in the 1980s. He died last year.

Arguably Ms. Pleshette’s most memorable television moment was not in “The Bob Newhart Show,” but in the final episode of “Newhart” in 1990. Mr. Newhart’s character, Dick Loudon, was hit in the head by a golf ball and woke up to find himself in Dr. Robert Hartley’s bed, with his beautiful wife, Emily, at his side. The whole second sitcom had been a nightmare.

The episode was considered one of the most successful series finales ever, partly because it managed to remain a secret until it was broadcast. As time passed, some found the scene a useful metaphor for hopes that a difficult situation might turn out to be just a bad dream. In 1999 a headline in the humor publication The Onion read, “Universe Ends as God Wakes Up Next to Suzanne Pleshette.”

Recommended viewing

Dr Kildare/The Fugitive/Afred Hitchcock Presents

40 Pounds of Trouble (1962)

The Birds (1963)

Fate is the hunter (1964)

A rage to live (1965)

Nevada Smith (1966)

If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium (1969)

The Bob Newhart Show (CBS Tv series) 1972-78