Rosemary Knower, shown onstage, "had a raucous sense of humor, a playful wit, a deep reservoir of knowledge about literature."
Rosemary Knower, shown onstage, "had a raucous sense of humor, a playful wit, a deep reservoir of knowledge about literature." (Stan Barouh / Handout 2006)

Rosemary Knower, an actress who played roles from Lady Macbeth to a schoolteacher in John Waters’ “Hairspray,” died of a stroke Wednesday at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pa. The former North Baltimore resident was 76.

“Rosemary was the first woman I knew who managed to be a devoted mother, an inspiring teacher and a committed actress on the stage,” said Denise Koch, WJZ-TV anchor, who is also an actress. “She had a raucous sense of humor, a playful wit, a deep reservoir of knowledge about literature and the theater, and a throaty roly-poly laugh once heard, you’ll never forget.

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“Rosemary was a character actress in the best sense of the word: She found the essence of whatever character she tackled.”

Ms. Knower seemed to be omnipresent in local theater in Baltimore and Washington for more than 35 years. She last performed at Arena Stage and was often in casts at Center Stage, Theater Hopkins, Everyman Theatre, the Vagabonds, Cockpit in Court, the Theatre Project and the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

Rosemary Knower, left, and Stephanie Burden appear in Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" at Rep Stage.
Rosemary Knower, left, and Stephanie Burden appear in Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" at Rep Stage. (Stan Barouh / Handout 2005)

She was recalled for roles as the mother in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and an alcoholic sister in “A Delicate Balance.”

“It was actors like Rosemary who put us on the map,” said Vincent Lancisi, artistic director at Everyman. “The depth of her knowledge was sweeping. She was very good with British drama because she understood the dramaturgy so well.”

F. Scott Black, a former Community College of Baltimore County dean, said: “Rosemary was the consummate actor always leading the cast in commitment and professionalism whether in the lead or in a supporting role. She did this with a spark of humor and a touch of class.”

Mr. Black, who has directed numerous local theatrical productions, recalled her 1977 performance at Cockpit in Court.

“I had a well-established and well-known Baltimore actress in mind to play Lady Macbeth, but then Rosemary auditioned and blew me away with her strength and compassion,” Mr. Black said. “It was a difficult thing to tell Virginia Robinson that she did not get the part [we had sort of picked the production with her in mind], but one of the best things I ever did was to cast Rosemary as Lady Macbeth. This was an outdoor production and the flyovers from Martin's Airport were no match for the timber of Rosemary's voice! Her powerful performance played to sold-out audiences.”

Mr. Black also said his theater company had to add a late 10 p.m. show to accommodate demand for tickets.

“She was the best Lady Macbeth I have ever seen. We worked together after that. … I have never seen her deliver a less-than 100% performance. Baltimore has lost a theater giant, and a sweet and loving person.”

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Grat Bandy Hankins, an Army officer, and his wife, Stella Mister. With her father in the military, she moved around and spent a year in Paris before graduating from Bel Air High School in 1960. She earned a degree at the University of South Carolina and had a master’s degree from the University of Denver.

Deborah Hazlett as Julia, left, and Rosemary Knower as Claire appear in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" at Everyman Theatre.
Deborah Hazlett as Julia, left, and Rosemary Knower as Claire appear in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" at Everyman Theatre. (Handout 2002)

While working at the Town Theatre in Columbia, S.C., she met her future husband, Henry DuBarry Knower. After he was named to the faculty of Goucher College, she and her husband settled in Baltimore. They lived for many years in Towson and later in Upper Marlboro.

“Her enthusiasm filled the rehearsal room, or any room she entered, yet she was grounded with a strong sense of values and very little ego,” Ms. Koch said. “Those characteristics made it impossible not to love her. I loved her as did everyone fortunate to have known her. An utterly unique, brilliant light has left our world.”

Robert Dorfman, with whom she worked at Center Stage, said: “She was an ardent denizen of the theater. She was so skilled and collaborative, hardworking, good-natured and generous. She was an invaluable contributor to the most creative and intelligent life of the stages in Baltimore and Washington. She was also a lovely and loving woman.”

Irene Lewis, Center Stage’s former artistic director, said, “Rosemary was an extremely hard worker and gave each role everything she had.”

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She appeared in small parts in numerous films, including “Hairspray” and “Serial Mom,” and played a grieving mother on the television show “The Wire.”

“She was really a great gal — as a character actor, you put her up for a director — and bam — she’d get the role. She loved what she did,” said Pat Moran, a casting agent.

Ms. Knower headed the theater department and taught at Park School from 1976 to 1984.

“She was a force of nature and loved teaching ninth grade — works like ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Canterbury Tales,’ ” said Rachelle Johnson Work, a former Park School English chair. “As a colleague she was inspirational.”

One of her students, Julian Fleisher, a New York City resident, recalled her.

“She was magical. She seemed to come out of the pages of a fantasy novel,” he said. “She had a wonderful witchiness to her, and she turned the classroom into a cinematic experience. She was the English teacher out of the movies, the one who brought it all to life. She was liberated intellectually and spiritually, and she wanted us to be the same way.”

Ms. Knower had a second career as a freelance writer. Her work appeared in Prologue, a National Archives publication. She also wrote “Failure is Impossible” about the women’s suffrage movement. Her articles on home decor, crafts and gardening appeared in The Baltimore Sun, among other publications.

Plans for a June memorial service are incomplete.

Survivors include a stepdaughter, Torrence Knower Stockard of Winthrop, Wash.; two sons, Cyrus McElderry Knower of Media, Pa., and Zachary Stewart Knower of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and five grandchildren. Her husband died in 2005.

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