Elaine Stritch

American actress/singer Elaine Stritch (b. Detroit, MI, February 2, 1926) is currently best known for her 2001 one-woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty (off- and on-Broadway), later shown as a documentary on HBO and winning a special Emmy Award® in 2004, and for her role as Alec Baldwin’s mother on NBC’s 30 Rock (2007). Decades earlier, she clawed her way to the top on Broadway, establishing her signature songs, “Zip” in Pal Joey (1952 revival) and “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the original Company (1970) by Stephen Sondheim. She has been awarded three Primetime Emmys® (30 Rock, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Law & Order 1993), and At Liberty has won additionally a special Tony®, two Drama Desk Awards, an Obie, and the Outer Circle Critics and New York Drama Critics Awards.

Elaine Stritch’s father was a wealthy business executive for B.F. Goodrich in Detroit, her mother a homemaker. The family, of Welsh and Irish descent, was Roman Catholic; Elaine’s uncle was the late Archbishop of Chicago, Samuel Cardinal Stritch. She was sent to a finishing school rather than college, then went to New York City to study at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research. Among other students there at the time were Marlon Brando (whom she dated briefly) and Beatrice Arthur.

Stritch arrived on Broadway in 1946 in a non-musical comedy called Loco, which lasted exactly one month. Far more successful was the 1947 sketch revue Angel in the Wings, in which she played five parts. After another short-lived non-musical (Yes, M’Lord 1949), Stritch understudied Ethel Merman in the smash hit Call Me Madam (1950). Near the end of the nineteen-month run, she also took on the role of Melba Snyder in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, making the song “Zip” her own. Stritch later starred in Merman’s role on the national tour of Call Me Madam.

In the 1950s Elaine Stritch was a supporting actress in several Hollywood potboilers, the least trivial of which was A Farewell to Arms (1957) with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. None of them was a musical, and none of them brought her particular distinction. She split her time, however, just about equally with Broadway, scoring three notable successes: as Peggy Porterfield in a revival of On Your Toes (1954), singing “You Took Advantage of Me”; as Grace Hoylard in the non-musical Bus Stop (1955–1956), for which she was nominated for a Tony Award®; and as Maggie Harris in Goldilocks (1958–1959, “Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?”) with Don Ameche. In 1962 she earned another Tony® nomination for Best Actress as Mimi Paragon in Noel Coward’s musical Sail Away. She was Uta Hagen’s replacement in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the summer months of 1963.

Stritch first appeared on television as early as 1948, and in 1950 was the original Trixie in ten early Honeymooners sketches with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on the live variety show Cavalcade of Stars. She sang on The Ed Sullivan Show (1954) and played many roles on showcases like the Kraft Television Theatre (1953), Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953–1955), DuPont Show of the Month (1958), Studio One (1958), and others. The two television series on which she was a regular, My Sister Eileen (1960) and The Trials of O’Brien (1965), with Peter Falk, lasted no more than three episodes apiece.

Stritch’s musical theatre career got a big boost in 1970 with Sondheim’s Company, owing more to her powerful rendition of “(Here’s To) The Ladies Who Lunch” than to the Tony® nomination she earned for singing it. D.A. Pennebaker filmed a documentary of the recording of the Original Cast Album, and a rash of television appearances (The Merv Griffin Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show) materialized for Stritch.

Company, with Stritch in the cast, moved to London in 1972; there she met British actor John Bay and married him in 1973. She decided to stay and work in theatre and television in Britain, starring in a popular comedy series, Two’s Company (1975), with Sir Donald Sinden (she a free-wheeling American writer of thrillers, he her strait-laced butler). The series ran for four years and made Stritch a popular guest on talk and variety shows. She appeared intermittently on Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979–1980) and on the children’s program Jackanory.

After her husband died of brain cancer in 1982, Elaine Stritch returned to the United States to appear on The Ellen Burstyn Show (1986), The Cosby Show (1989–1990), Law & Order (1992, 1997), Oz (1998), and 3rd Rock From the Sun (1997, 2001). She also surfaced briefly in the soaps (The Edge of Night 1984, One Life to Live 1993). On Broadway she appeared as a replacement in Love Letters (1989), in a revival of Show Boat (1994), and gained another Tony® nomination for her performance in A Delicate Balance (revival 1996). A concert staging of Company in 1993 featured Stritch back in her signature role of Joanne, as did the benefit Angela Lansbury – A Celebration in November 1996.

The greatest triumph of Elaine Stritch’s career was without doubt the one-woman show that summed up – in a “reconstruction” – the ups and downs of her entire life and experience, Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Filled with personal recollections of Brando, Gig Young, Merman, Coward, and Gloria Swanson, and songs from her greatest hit shows, it opened at the Public Theatre in New York in 2001 and moved to Broadway the next year. Stritch – who spared for nothing in discussing her battles with diabetes and alcoholism – won a Special Tony Award®. She took the show to Britain in 2002, and D.A. Pennebaker won several Emmys® in 2004 for his documentary of its rehearsals and performances.

Elaine Stritch lives at the Hotel Carlyle in New York, where she performed a cabaret act in the Carlyle Room in 2005 – and is likely to do so again. Since 2007 she has been a sometime guest on the primetime sitcom 30 Rock as the mother of Alec Baldwin’s lead character, winning an Emmy®. in 2007 for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. In 2008 she reprised Elaine Stritch At Liberty at Hartford Stage, acted in Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and appeared on television as herself in an episode of The Big Gay Sketch Show.

– LEC