NEW YORK — Jane Connell, a character actress best known for her portrayal of Agnes Gooch, the mousy secretary to the title character in the musical “Mame,” died Sunday in Englewood, N.J. She was 87.
Her daughter Maggie confirmed the death, at the Lillian Booth Actors Home of the Actors Fund.
Mrs. Connell’s comedic flair tickled audiences for nearly six decades as she made her way from California nightclubs to the Broadway stage and beyond. In 1971, writing in The New York Times, Mel Gussow applauded her portrayal of Mrs. Hardcastle in a production of “She Stoops to Conquer.”
“She strides through this production with grace and confidence, never playing for laughs, but getting most of them,” he wrote.
She performed in a dozen Broadway shows, including the revue “New Faces of 1956” and two productions of Jerry Herman’s “Mame,” with Angela Lansbury, in 1966 and 1983.
She also played Agnes Gooch in the 1974 movie version, starring Lucille Ball.
There were nearly as many off-Broadway shows, including the acclaimed 1954 production of “The Threepenny Opera,” starring Lotte Lenya, as well as national tours, regional productions, and television. She appeared on sitcoms including “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” and “Bewitched” (she played Queen Victoria, among other roles) and, perhaps inevitably, “Law & Order.”
“Being a child of the Depression, she said, ‘I never, ever want to be out of work,’ ” recounted the actor Peter Ratray, a close friend.
Jane Sperry Bennett was born in Oakland, Calif. In 1948, she married Gordon Connell, a fellow actor and musician, who survives her, along with her daughters, Maggie and Melissa.
The Connells worked in some of the most famous nightclubs of the day, performing musical revues at clubs including the Purple Onion in San Francisco and Le Ruban Bleu and Upstairs at the Downstairs in New York. A New York Times review by Arthur Gelb of a 1962 off-Broadway revue, “No Shoestrings,” called her “one of our most gifted comediennes.”
“She has a comical way of puffing up her face like a pouter pigeon and of hitting a high note with a kind of hysterical relief that she got there,” Gelb wrote.
In later years Mrs. Connell had a wealth of Broadway roles.
“Everybody was rediscovering this funny older actress,” her agent, Steven Unger, said.
She appeared in two shows written by Ken Ludwig, “Lend Me a Tenor” in 1989 and the Gershwin musical “Crazy for You” in 1992, and with Carol Burnett in “Moon Over Buffalo” in 1995. Her last Broadway role, in 2001, was in “The Full Monty,” a musical adaptation of the hit 1997 film; she took over as Jeanette, the jaded pianist, after the death of Kathleen Freeman.
Maggie Connell said that her mother had loved the life of a character actor, someone who might not have the most lines but gets many of the juiciest ones: “She liked to hit and run, as she put it.”