Oscar Profile #504: Eileen Heckart

Born March 29, 1919 in Columbus, Ohio, (Anna) Eileen Herbert was an only child who went with her mother when her parents separated when she was 2. Her mother was an alcoholic who married five times. She was often shunted off to her mother’s mother and her second husband who eventually adopted her, changing her last name from Herbert to his, the similarly sounding Heckart.

A lonely child, Heckart immersed herself in movies, graduating from the University of Ohio with a B.A. in Drama in 1942. That same year she married husband, John Harrison Yankee Jr., an insurance broker with whom she had four children and remained married to until his death in 1997. Her first Broadway role was as assistant stage manager and understudy to both Margaret Sullavan and Audrey Christie in The Voice of the Turtle in 1943.

In numerous plays on Broadway and later TV, her career took off with her portrayal of Rosemary Sydney, the schoolteacher in Picnic in 1953, the role that went to Rosalind Russell in the 1955 film version. The following year she played the mother of the murdered boy in The Bad Seed, a role she repeated in the 1956 film version for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

The Bad Seed was the fourth of four films Heckart made in 1956, her first year in films. It followed Miracle in the Rain as Jane Wyman’s friend; Somebody Up There Likes Me as Paul Newman’s mother; and Bus Stop as Marilyn Monroe’s friend.

In 1957, Heckart created the role of the wife’s bigoted sister in Broadway’s The Dark the Top of the Stairs for which she received a Tony nomination. The role went to Eve Arden in the 1960 film version. She continued to alternate between Broadway, TV, and film roles, receiving another Tony nomination for 1969’s Butterflies Are Free, a role she repeated in the 1972 film version, for which she received a much deserved Oscar.

most high-profile TV role was as Mary Tyler Moore’s journalist aunt on The Mary Tyler Moore Show for which she received two of her seven Emmy nominations in 1976 and 1977. She reprised the role in the show’s spinoff series, Lou Grant, in 1980. She finally won an Emmy on her seventh nomination for her guest-starring role in the 1994 comedy series, Love & War.

The ever-busy actress made her final film appearance as Diane Keaton’s mother in 1996’s The First Wives Club. Her last TV appearance was in the TV series Cybill in 1998.

In 2000, Heckart won Drama Desk amd Obie awards for her portrayal of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient in off-Broadway’s The Waverly Gallery which triggered a Tony Award for Excellence in Theater.

Eileen Heckart died on December 31, 2001. She was 82.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE BAD SEED (1956), directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Heckart repeated her stage role of the alcoholic mother whose young son is murdered by “bad seed” child Patty McCormack in this delicious over-the-top thriller. It was her fourth film to be released in 1956, the year she made her film debut after losing her Broadway role in Picnic to Rosalind Russell the year before. She was seen earlier in the year as Jane Wyman’s friend in the mystical Miracle in the Rain, Rocky Graziano’s (Paul Newman’s) mother in the biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me and Marilyn Monroe’s friend in Bus Stop.

NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY (1968), directed by Jack Smight

By now, well established on screen in mother and best friend (Hot Spell, loyal assistant My Six Loves) and schoolteacher (Up the Down Staircase) roles, Heckart returned to mother roles as the comic relief as detective George Segal’s overbearing mother in the comedy-thriller No Way to Treat a Lady in which psychotic Rod Steiger murders little old ladies in their apartments who remind him of his late mother. Lee Remick is the damsel in distress who becomes Segal’s girlfriend who uses psychology on Heckart to make her like her.

BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE (1972), directed by Milton Katselas

Reprising her Tony-nominated portrayal of the overbearing mother of the blind boy trying to make it on his own without her interference, Heckart more than held her own against newcomer Edward Albert (Eddie Albert’s son) and Oscar winner Goldie Hawn as his kooky neighbor, winning a much-deserved Oscar of her own. The title of Leonard Gershe’s beloved play comes from a line in Charles Dickens’ 1883 novel, Bleak House: “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.”

BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE (1979), directed by Michael O’Herlihy

This terrific mini-series served as a backstairs history of the White House through eight administrations from Taft through Eisenhower as seen through the eyes of one of the maids who followed her mother into service there. Heckart’s portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt was one of eleven Emmy nominations the series earned, six of which went to actors. In addition to Heckrt, nominations went to Olivia Cole and Leslie Uggams as the mother and duahgter maids, Louis Gossett Jr. as a butler, Robert Vaughn as Woodrow Wilson, Celeste Holm as Grace Harding and Ed Flanders as Calvin Coolidge.

THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1996), directed by Hugh Wilson

Heckart was still an acting force to be reckoned with at 77 when she played her last big screen role as Diane Keaton’s meddlesome mother in this star-studded comedy starring Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Keaton as divorcées out to get revenge on the husbands who dumped them for younger women. Heckart was billed fourteenth on the cast list which also included Maggie Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker and Stockard Channing and Ivana Trump, Gloria Steinem and Ed Koch as themselves. The actress lived another five years, going out in glory in the off-Broadway play The Waverly Gallery for which she won numerous awards.

EILEEN HECKART AND OSCAR

  • The Bad Seed (1956) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress
  • Butterflies Are Free (1972) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actress

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