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Remembering a Star and a Character Actor

Last week, two extraordinary actors died within a day of each other. Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday, March 23, at 79; character actor Helen Stenborg died just a few hours earlier at age 86. Though the two could not have had more different lives and careers, each created memorable characters and earned the love and admiration of her fans, friends, and family.

While Taylor's passing was marked by the entire world, Stenborg was remembered mainly by the New York theater community. It's fitting that Back Stage, the actors' resource, pay tribute to them both.

When I was growing up, Taylor was generally acknowledged as the world's most beautiful and glamorous movie star. Her every move, marriage, and divorce was documented by the international press, and her legendary beauty drew crowds wherever she went. Friends of mine who worked as ushers at the Off-Broadway production of "Steel Magnolias" told me the police had to be called when Taylor came to see the show, because the narrow street outside the theater was mobbed with fans.

But Taylor was much more than a stunning beauty and the object of endless gossip. She grew from a precocious child star in films like "National Velvet" and "A Date With Judy" into a respected actor. Who could forget the wild yet naïve heiress Angela in "A Place in the Sun," the frustrated feline Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and the tormented Catherine in "Suddenly, Last Summer"? For me, her most memorable performances were in two films based on plays, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Taming of the Shrew," both opposite husband No. 5 and 6, Richard Burton. In the former, she forsook her iconic allure to tackle Edward Albee's viragolike Martha, the embittered faculty wife playing deadly games of truth and illusion. Taylor deservedly won the second of her two Oscars for this blistering portrayal (the first was for her work in the melodramatic "Butterfield 8"). In "Shrew," she eloquently spoke Shakespeare's verse and unreservedly threw herself into the physical comedy of Franco Zeffirelli's almost slapstick production.

More than for her movies, her Broadway work in "The Little Foxes" and "Private Lives," or her scandalous private life, Taylor will probably be most lovingly remembered for her AIDS activism. Long before it was fashionable, she raised money and worked tirelessly to remove the stigma from what was generally perceived as a "gay disease."

While Taylor was an international goddess, Stenborg pursued a quieter career. In a 2009 interview, she told Back Stage's Simi Horwitz that soon after marrying actor Barnard Hughes, she put her acting on the back burner to concentrate on the real-life role of mother to their two children: Doug, now a Tony-winning director ("Doubt"), and Laura, an actor. After the kids grew up, she returned to the stage, giving standout performances in the plays of Lanford Wilson—"The Hot l Baltimore," "Fifth of July," and "Talley & Son"—at Off-Broadway's Circle Repertory Company. (Wilson, one of America's greatest playwrights, died March 24.) For "Talley & Son," she won an Obie Award for playing Netta Talley, the wife of a philandering husband, played by Farley Granger (who died March 28). I can still remember her final monologue, in which Netta confronts her spouse and also deals with the news that their son has been killed in World War II. Stenborg kept a tight lid on Netta's rage and let it inform every word. She never raised her voice, but the impact was stunning.

In 2000, Stenborg and Hughes celebrated their golden wedding anniversary while performing in Noël Coward's "Waiting in the Wings" on Broadway. She received a Tony nomination for her wildly funny turn as Sarita Myrtle, a pyromaniac in a retirement home for performers. Stenborg's eyes gleamed with mischief as Sarita contemplated setting off a conflagration. Stenborg also made appearances in such films as "Doubt," "Three Days of the Condor," and "Starting Over," and she was memorable in a guest-starring role on "St. Elsewhere" as the mother of an AIDS patient.

She continued performing after Hughes died in 2006, making her last appearance in an Off-Broadway production of Morris Panych's "Vigil" in 2009. In the Back Stage interview conducted in connection with that show, Stenborg lamented the lack of familiarity that younger actors have with theater history. "It amazes me that many actors today have never heard of Katharine Cornell, the Lunts, or Helen Hayes," she said. While every actor has no doubt heard of Taylor, they should also be aware of great character actors
like Stenborg.

David Sheward is the New York–based executive editor of Back Stage. 

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