Tammy Grimes, Broadway’s “Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1934-2016)

Tammy Grimes, who died Oct. 30 at age 82, was one of those natural performers who nevertheless defy categorization. She won two Tonys, including one for starring in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” appeared in films and television shows, had her own series, married the grand actor Christopher Plummer — with whom she had a daughter, the gifted and also original actress Amanda Plummer of “Pulp Fiction” fame — and later in life became a cabaret star of the kind that was hard to assess.

Her resume is almost tortuous in its incongruous turns. She made her Broadway debut as an understudy to Kim Stanley in “Bus Stop,” which eventually became a highly praised vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. It wasn’t that far from “Bus Stop” to “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” in which she played an heiress who survived the sinking of the Titanic, a role that became a movie vehicle for Debbie Reynolds.

Grimes was almost famous for things she didn’t do. She was the original choice for the Elizabeth Montgomery role in the highly successful television series “Bewitched.” Instead, she chose her own series, which did not succeed. Among her credits is an original version of the “Archy and Mehitabel” stories, part of a syndicated TV “Play of the Week” series, co-written by Mel Brooks. It was just the kind of thing you’d expect to find Grimes in (or Carol Channing, who was in an animated version).

She returned to Broadway and got herself another Tony as Amanda in Noel Coward’s wonderfully acidic and popular “Private Lives” (Burton and Taylor did it at the Kennedy Center). Here’s more: she provided the voice for Albert, the mouse who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, in 1974 in “Twas the Night Before Christmas” on television and also starred in the original production of David Merrick’s hugely successful “42nd Street.”

And she sang — at many of New York’s fabled nightclubs for cabaret singers. Back in the 1980s, she also did a stint at Charlie’s, an elegant but now gone Georgetown supper club. This reporter talked to her then about her life with Plummer, her daughter, about music and the stage, about singing “Tennessee Waltz” — hauntingly, totally different from Patti Page’s version, an unforgettable rendition.

A number of years later I saw her in concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. We talked on the phone and she announced in a voice that was like nothing I’ve ever heard (or remembered): “Hello, this is Tammy Grimes.” In the concert, she sang familiar songs, a powerful, almost menacing version of “The Pirate Song” from “Threepenny Opera” and “Ring Them Bells” and “You Better Love Me While You May.” Time had done something interesting to her. The voice may have lost some of its clarity, but not its emotional power; the atmospherics of her personality were stronger than ever.

Legendary theater critic and historian Walter Kerr, after seeing her in “Molly Brown,” said: “She is a genius.” The question is, what kind?

On the phone, onstage, she was the unforgettable kind.


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