Actress' career spanned six decades

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- Shelley Winters, a blond bombshell of the 1940s who evolved into a character actress best remembered for her roles as victims, shrews and matrons, died yesterday. She was 85.

Ms. Winters, the first actress to win two Oscars in the best supporting category, died of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills, her publicist Dale Olson announced. She was hospitalized in October after suffering a heart attack.


Although most sources give her birth date as Aug. 18, 1922, she told Variety's Army Archerd in 2004 that she had lied to studio head Harry Cohn when she signed with Columbia and was born two years earlier.

After years on studio contract playing negligible parts, Ms. Winters got a break in George Cukor's 1947 film, A Double Life, in which she played a waitress who was murdered by Ronald Colman's character.


Four years later, she became a full-fledged star as the dowdy factory girl Montgomery Clift's character lets drown to be with the beautiful rich woman played by Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun. Ms. Winters was nominated for, but did not win, a best-actress Oscar for the portrayal.

But Ms. Winters did win in the supporting category for her roles as Mrs. Van Daan in Stevens' The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Rose-Ann D'Arcy, the abusive mother who tries to turn her blind daughter into a prostitute, in A Patch of Blue (1965). The actress donated the first Oscar statuette to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Also among her 130 films was The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which earned her another best-supporting-actress nomination.

Ms. Winters was the author of two well-received autobiographies: Shelley: Also Known as Shirley (1980), which was on the best-seller list for many weeks, and Shelley II: The Middle of My Century (1989).

Born Shirley Shrift in St. Louis, the daughter of a garment cutter-salesman-designer and a mother who had aspirations to be an opera singer, Winters grew up mostly in Brooklyn. While in high school, she took acting lessons and got interested in show business.

As a teenager, she auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's production of Gone With the Wind. Although she didn't get the part, director George Cukor, "was the first person to treat me as if I were really an actress," she wrote in Shelley: Also Known as Shirley.

While in high school, she entered local beauty contests, modeled and acted in school plays. She got a part in the national company of Pins and Needles, but when the director found out she had borrowed a friend's union card, she was let go. The director advised her to study acting, which took her to a dramatic workshop at New York City's New School for Social Research. It would, she said, "change my life, my art, my politics and, I think, my soul."

For a couple of summers, she was an entertainer at one of the hotels in the "Borscht Belt" in the Catskills. She also did a little vaudeville, an off-Broadway play and a national company tour of the Broadway musical, Meet the People. She met and married her first husband, Mack P. Mayer, who went off to World War II; they divorced when he returned.


When she was appearing as Fifi in the hit Broadway show Rosalinda, Mr. Cohn spotted her good looks and comedic possibilities and asked her to do a test. Soon she was in Hollywood under contract. Her first lines were spoken to Rosalind Russell in What a Woman! (1943): "You can't go in there now, miss."

Many more films and similar lines later, she was feeling discouraged when Mr. Cukor cast her as the doomed waitress in the film he was directing, A Double Life. It was to prove her breakthrough role.

Among her other films was the well-regarded The Night of the Hunter (1955), which starred Robert Mitchum and was the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, a mentor with whom she also studied Shakespeare.

Her study of her craft also took her to the Actors Studio, and she eventually became a valued acting teacher.

Eventually, Ms. Winters left behind the image of a sexy star and slipped comfortably into the role familiar to audiences today: a blunt, bawdy, comical, overweight broad.

Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker magazine about Ms. Winter's performance as the "hysteric on the loose" mother in Paul Mazursky's Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), said: "With her twinkly goo-goo eyes and flirty grin, [she's] a mother hippo charging - not at her son's enemies but at him. Fat, morose, irrepressible, she's a force that would strike terror to anyone's heart, yet in some abominable way she's likable."


Film historian and critic David Thomson said Ms. Winters was "at her best when driven to wonder, 'How did a girl like me get into a high-class movie like this?'" Her career, he said, had "never lost its sense of loudmouth fun."

Diane Ladd, who directed Ms. Winters in a 1995 TV movie, Mrs. Munck, said Ms. Winters was wonderful to direct because "she lives one-sixteenth from her subconscious. She just lets it pour out."

That generosity of spirit also applied to Ms. Winters' private life.

There were doubtless many other starlets with stories to tell, but who but Ms. Winters could tell the tale of the night when Burt Lancaster - the married lover who had just broken her heart - showed up at her apartment at 5 a.m. as she was sleeping off a night of sexual healing with Marlon Brando?

"Burt came up the slow elevator, and I quickly straightened the apartment up as much as I could and then threw on a flannel nightgown," Ms. Winters wrote in Shelley: Also Known as Shirley. Mr. Brando escaped via stairs to the roof.

And who would ever have told of other liaisons - some brief, some lasting many years - with William Holden, a same-time-next-year Christmas Eve kind of relationship; Farley Granger, to whom she was engaged but never married; Errol Flynn, about whom she once said, "I can assure you [he] was not a homosexual"; and Sean Connery, to whom she once lent rent money and who paid her back much later with a mink coat?


Ms. Winters said she was a "role model" for Marilyn Monroe. When, as young actresses, they shared an apartment in Hollywood, it was she who taught Monroe the sexy, lips-apart look for which Monroe became famous, Ms. Winters said. There are pictures of each of them wearing the same striped, two-piece swimsuit for cheesecake photos.

Ms. Winters was appreciated for her willingness to help other actors. Among her proteges was Sally Kirkland, who said she learned from Ms. Winters that "you can be an Oscar-winning actress and have a sense of truth and a sense of humor all at the same time."

Late in her career, Ms. Winters became a favorite on late-night talk show programs, beloved for her sense of humor and saltiness. She provided Johnny Carson with one of the most memorable moments on The Tonight Show when she dumped a glass of water over the head of English actor Oliver Reed, who had annoyed her with an anti-feminist remark.

"I have bursts of being a lady, but it doesn't last long," Ms. Winters once said.

Besides her marriage to Mr. Mayer, Winters was wed and divorced twice more. Her tempestuous third marriage, to actor Anthony Franciosa, lasted three years.

With her second husband, Italian actor Vittorio Gassman, she had a daughter, Vittoria Gina Gassman, a physician, who survives her.


Claudia Luther writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Shelley Winters on screen

Film credits for Shelley Winters include:

What a Woman! 1943

The Racket Man, 1944

Together Again, 1944


She's a Soldier Too, 1944

Cover Girl, 1944

Knickerbocker Holiday, 1944

Sailor's Holiday, 1944

Escape in the Fog, 1945

Dancing in Manhattan, 1945


A Thousand and One Nights, 1945

Two Smart People, 1946

The Fighting Guardsman, 1946

Killer McCoy, 1947

A Double Life, 1947

The Gangster, 1947


Living in a Big Way, 1947

New Orleans, 1947

Larceny, 1948

The Great Gatsby, 1949

Take One False Step, 1949

Frenchie, 1950


South Sea Sinner, 1950

Winchester 73, 1950

Behave Yourself! 1951

A Place in the Sun, 1951

He Ran All the Way, 1951

The Raging Tide, 1951


My Man and I, 1952

Untamed Frontier, 1952

Meet Danny Wilson, 1952

Executive Suite, 1954

Playgirl, 1954

I Died a Thousand Times, 1955


The Big Knife, 1955

The Treasure of Pancho Villa, 1955

The Night of the Hunter, 1955

I Am a Camera, 1955

Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959

The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959


Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960

The Young Savages, 1961

The Chapman Report, 1962

Lolita, 1962

Wives and Lovers, 1963

The Balcony, 1963


A House Is Not a Home, 1964

Indifferenti, Gli, 1964

A Patch of Blue, 1965

The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965

Alfie, 1966

The Three Sisters, 1966


Enter Laughing, 1967

Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, 1968

The Mad Room, 1969

Arthur! Arthur! 1969

Flap, 1970

What's the Matter with Helen? 1971


Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? 1971

The Poseidon Adventure, 1972

Something to Hide, 1972

Cleopatra Jones, 1973

Journey Into Fear, 1975

Poor Pretty Eddy, 1975


Next Stop, Greenwich Village, 1976

Pete's Dragon, 1977

Tentacoli, 1977

King of the Gypsies, 1978

The Magician of Lublin, 1979

S.O.B., 1981


Fanny Hill, 1983

Over the Brooklyn Bridge, 1984

The Delta Force, 1986

Purple People Eater, 1988

An Unremarkable Life, 1989

Touch of a Stranger, 1990


Stepping Out, 1991

The Pickle, 1993

Il Silenzio dei prosciutti, 1994

Heavy, 1995

Backfire! 1995

Jury Duty, 1995


Mrs. Munck, 1995

Raging Angels, 1995

The Portrait of a Lady, 1996

Gideon, 1999

La Bomba, 1999

[Source: Associated Press]