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Attention was paid to Mildred Dunnock

The Baltimore Sun

The next time you're watching the noir classic Kiss of Death, take note of the woman Richard Widmark ties to a wheelchair and shoves down a flight of stairs -- and into film history. It's none other than Mildred Dunnock, a Baltimorean and member of the Goucher College Class of 1922.

"Millie was a real pro and not above being tied to a wheelchair and sent to her death down a flight of stairs," said former Goucher President Rhoda M. Dorsey the other day.

Widmark, who died last month, made his film debut as the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death.

The 1947 film, whose screenplay was written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, stars Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray and Karl Malden.

Udo, an ex-convict, exacts revenge on Ma Rizzo, played by Dunnock, whose son is an underworld informant, by ripping a cord from a lamp, tying her with it into her wheelchair and sending the chair bouncing down the stairs.

While movie critics refer to Dunnock as an "old woman," she was actually in her late 40s when she played the wheelchair scene.

Mildred Dorothy Dunnock was born in Baltimore on Jan. 25, 1901, and lived at 2317 Maryland Ave.

It was while she attended the old Western High School on Gwynns Falls Parkway that Dunnock's interest in the theater began when a teacher asked her to read from the Bible at a school assembly.

"The experience disclosed that though I was a shy little thing, I had a voice," she told The Sun Magazine in a 1949 interview. "The discovery gave me confidence and led to my playing Lady Gwendolyn Fairfax in that hardy perennial, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest."

After graduating from Western in 1918, she enrolled at Goucher College, then at 23rd and St. Paul streets, where she joined Agora, the college's dramatic society.

"I like Baltimore, but it has some unhappy memories for me," she told The Evening Sun in a 1942 interview.

"You see, I used to play the male leads in Goucher plays before men were allowed in the casts. And I recall with shame the times my voice would suddenly change from my assumed baritone to a girlish soprano. It always happened in the most dramatic scenes," Dunnock said.

Dunnock's relatives were cool to her desire for a career in the theater and did their best to discourage her, hoping she would get married and become a homemaker.

When a college counselor suggested she study for a master's degree in theater, her father was less than enthusiastic.

"My father was astounded, but she told him that I had the theater in me. It put a bee in my bonnet, I guess," she told The Sun during a 1972 visit to Baltimore.

"These were the days before psychoanalysis, so I found therapy in the theater. I was timid and shy, but I found in the theater an outlet. It freed me. Goucher opened that door," she said.

After graduating from Goucher, she taught at Friends School while performing in shows at the Johns Hopkins University and the Vagabond Players, where she made her debut in a 1924 production of W. Somerset Maugham's Penelope.

Dunnock left Baltimore and earned a master's degree in theater at Columbia, and made her Broadway debut in 1932 playing Miss Pinty in Life Begins while teaching at Brearley, a private girls' school in New York City.

Turning to Broadway full time during the 1940s, Dunnock played roles in Foolish Notion with Tallulah Bankhead, Lute Song with Mary Martin and The Corn Is Green with Ethel Barrymore.

"She was small and slight with a thin, mobile mouth, and she excelled at playing the parts of mothers and eccentric ladies of various kinds," The New York Times wrote at her death in 1991. "Her admirers praised her power to move audiences by making them care for the characters she portrayed."

In an earlier interview with The New York Times, Dunnock explained the type of roles she sought.

"I like to play parts that are not like myself," she said. "I'm not the least bit exciting. I'm an ordinary person in an ordinary life, but in my imagination there's no stopping me."

Dunnock originated the Linda Loman role in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which opened on Broadway in 1949.

In a stunning performance that earned her rave notices from the New York critics, Dunnock is remembered for uttering the memorable line that "attention must be paid" to Willy Loman, her broken-down salesman husband, played by Lee J. Cobb. She re-created the role for the 1951 film, which earned her an Academy Award nomination, and reprised the role again in a 1966 CBS TV production.

Dunnock was not Miller's or director Elia Kazan's choice for Linda, but she persisted in coming to readings, one time dressed in a disguise that was quickly unmasked.

"Of course as soon as she began to read we recognized Millie's unique voice and everybody collapsed in laughter," Miller wrote in Theater Week in 1991.

Told, once again, she was wrong for the role, Miller said she "clapped her hands once and did a little jump and looked marvelous. Suddenly, I thought, she does seem like Linda Loman, with the persistent postiveness of that character, and her long, patient smile."

Other memorable roles that Dunnock endowed included Big Mama in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Lavinia in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest.

Gerald Bordman, theater scholar and co-author of The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, wrote that Dunnock was for "years one of the most respected supporting actresses in American theatre despite her mousy looks and plaintive voice."

Dunnock returned to Goucher when the Kraushaar Auditorium was dedicated in 1964.

"She took part in a version of Trojan Women and she was onstage with student actors. This was such a great thrill for them," Dorsey recalled.

In 1991, Goucher named a two-story teaching theater in the Meyerhoff Arts Center the Mildred Dunnock Theatre.

"In the last years of her life, she was very reclusive, and lived on Martha's Vineyard. I always wanted to go and see her and tell her how the kids enjoyed working in the theater named for her," Dorsey said.

In a 1971 visit to Goucher, Dunnock said in a lecture that "live performances can never be replaced by movies" and that sitting at home surrounded by screaming children is "not the same as sitting in a darkened theater, where you can have a certain true experience."

However, she was realistic about those seeking a career in theater.

"Theater is a hungry, trying life that no girl should attempt unless she has the passion to do it. You will starve. Your stomach will ache for food. You will break your heart," she told an assembly of Goucher students.

Dunnock, who was 90 when she died, had been married to Keith Urmy, a New York banker, for nearly 60 years. He died in 1995.

Her daughter, Linda McGuire, was an actress, as was her granddaughter, Patricia McGuire.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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