NEW YORK — Tammy Grimes, the throaty actress and singer who conquered Broadway at the age of 26, winning a Tony Award for her performance in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and went on to a distinguished stage career, died Sunday in Englewood, N.J. She was 82.
A native of Lynn, Mass., Ms. Grimes was largely unknown in 1960 when she was cast as Molly, the rags-to-riches socialite-philanthropist who survived the sinking of the Titanic.
The show’s producers, who clearly considered the music and lyrics by Meredith Willson more marketable than their female lead, declined to put her name above the title, which meant that (because of the Tony regulations then) she could be nominated only in the featured-actress category.
Her second Tony, for a 1969 revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” was for lead actress. Clive Barnes, writing in The New York Times, called Ms. Grimes’s interpretation of her character, the reluctant 1930s divorcée Amanda Prynne, “outrageously appealing” and “so ridiculously artificial that she just has to be for real.”
Coward was a major influence on Ms. Grimes’s career. In 1958, he saw her performing at the Manhattan club Downstairs at the Upstairs and cast her as the lead in “Look After Lulu,” a new comedy he had adapted from a Feydeau farce. In 1964 she appeared in “High Spirits,” a musical version of Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” playing the ghost of the leading man’s first wife. It was one of more than a dozen Broadway productions in which Ms. Grimes starred.
Her mop of blond-red hair, a pointed chin, a wide mouth, and a ski-slope nose gave her a distinctive look.
“I never looked like an ingénue,” Ms. Grimes acknowledged in a 1960 interview with The New York Times Magazine. But that didn’t matter to her, she said, because “I don’t want to be America’s Sweetheart; I’d rather be something they don’t quite understand.”
Tammy Lee Grimes was the second of three children of Luther Nichols Grimes, who managed the Brookline Country Club, and the former Eola Willard Niles. Many fans believed Ms. Grimes was British, partly because of her Mid-Atlantic accent, which she attributed to a finishing-school education.
She attended Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, and graduated from Stephens College in Missouri. Then she went to work for the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
Her off-Broadway debut was in “The Littlest Revue,” a 1956 musical whose cast included Joel Grey.
Critics loved Ms. Grimes from the beginning.
Walter Kerr compared her more than once to a stormy force of nature. Of her 1976 performance in Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” he wrote, “Everything out of her face is thunderously funny,” and a year later he reported that as Elmire in “Tartuffe” she called down “laughs sharp as thunderclaps.”
Ms. Grimes made films, including “Play It as It Lays,” “The Last Unicorn,” and “Slaves of New York,” and appeared in dozens of television movies and series (including her own short-lived sitcom, “The Tammy Grimes Show,” in 1966). But the starring role in the film version of “Molly Brown” (1964) went to Debbie Reynolds, who had a more traditional Hollywood look and sound.
The stage was Ms. Grimes’s first home. The off-Broadway productions in which she starred included a 1979 Roundabout Theater production of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” with her daughter, Amanda Plummer. Ms. Grimes also worked at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, performing at least once with her first husband, Christopher Plummer; in “Henry IV, Part I” (1958), he was Bardolph and she was Mistress Quickly.
Ms. Grimes and Plummer divorced in 1960. She married Jeremy Slate, a television actor, in 1966, and they divorced the next year.
She was with her third husband, the musician and composer Richard Bell, from 1971 until his death in 2005.