Elizabeth Wilson, an actress who distinguished herself onstage, on television and in films like “The Graduate” and “9 to 5” in supporting roles that were often meaty but rarely glamorous, died Saturday in New Haven, Conn.. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by Elizabeth Morton, a close friend whom she considered a daughter.
Wilson knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress, but she was never very interested in being a star.
“In the 1940s,” she told Connecticut magazine in 2012, “I was doing something called the Equity Library Theater in New York, when a movie company came to see the play I was in and offered me a contract. But the deal was, my nose was too big and they wanted me to have surgery. My jaw was crooked, and I’d have to have that fixed, too. And they didn’t like my name; it was too common. I was to change these things, and they’d sign me to a multiyear contract.
“I don’t know how I managed to do this, but I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Imagine! I can’t believe I had the wisdom.”
By all accounts, she was always content to be a character actress, more recognizable by face than by name. That face — equally capable of projecting snobbery, sadness and a winning eccentricity — was seen often in a career that lasted almost 70 years.
She won a Tony Award in 1972 for her portrayal of a blinded Vietnam War veteran’s emotionally wounded mother in David Rabe’s harrowing anti-war drama, “Sticks and Bones.” She won Obie Awards for her parts in “Taken in Marriage” in 1979 and “Anteroom” in 1986.
She was nominated for an Emmy for her role as the rich but helpless mother of a woman (Lee Remick) plotting to kill her father in the based-on-a-true-story miniseries “Nutcracker: Money, Madness and Murder” (1987).
Mothers were a particular specialty. There was something about her appearance and manner — the fact that she stood an imposing 5-foot-10 may have had something to do with it — that led directors to cast Wilson, who never had children, as mothers almost from the start of her career.
She was still in her 20s when she first played a mother, in a production of “Springtime for Henry” that toured Japan after World War II under the auspices of the USO.
On screen, she played the often befuddled mother of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” (1967), the patrician mother of Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Van Doren in “Quiz Show” (1994) and the scheming mother of an impostor (Christopher Lloyd) claiming to be Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family” (1991).
Onstage, her roles included Mrs. Peachum, whose daughter marries the notorious Mack the Knife, in a 1976 revival of “The Threepenny Opera.” Her last maternal role, as the mother of Bill Murray’s Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson” (2012), was also her last role of any kind.
Probably her best-known film performance, and certainly her most substantial, was not as a mother but as Roz, the memorably untrustworthy office snitch and the nemesis of the downtrodden workers played by Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, in the 1980 hit “9 to 5.”
Elizabeth Welter Wilson was born on April 4, 1921, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Henry Dunning Wilson, an insurance agent, and the former Marie Ethel Welter. She moved to New York after high school and studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
When she couldn’t find work in her early years in New York, Wilson worked with the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, where she met the actor Fritz Weaver, with whom she was for a time romantically involved.
Her first Broadway role was a spinster schoolteacher in “Picnic” in 1953. (She would play the same part in the movie version two years later.) Her last was a resident of a home for retired actresses in the 1999 revival of Noël Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings,” which was also Lauren Bacall’s Broadway farewell.
She played one of four aging sisters in the acclaimed 1980 production of “Morning’s at Seven” and a woman fleeing an unspecified danger in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” a performance Vincent Canby of The New York Times called “simultaneously pathetic and menacing,” adding, “You can’t ask for more.”
Wilson’s early film roles included the bitter personal secretary of a doomed movie star in “The Goddess” (1958) and a dowdy waitress in the Alfred Hitchcock classic “The Birds” (1963).
Her television career began with the 1955 Rod Serling drama “Patterns” and ended with an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” in 2002. She was Edith Bunker’s cousin in a 1975 episode of “All in the Family” and Barnard Hughes’ wife on the sitcom “Doc” (1975-76).
She was a favorite actress of Mike Nichols, who after directing her in “The Graduate” cast her in his films “Catch-22” (1970), “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973) and “Regarding Henry” (1991), and on Broadway in his 1973 revival of “Uncle Vanya.”
Wilson is survived by a sister, Mary Muir Wilson, with whom she had been living in Branford, Conn., and several nieces and nephews.
She never married, although she told an interviewer in 2013 that she had “met a lot of interesting gentlemen in the work situation,” two of whom (she did not name them) she was “madly in love with.”
“But in those days,” she added, “if a woman married, they had to quit what they were doing and stay home and raise a family. I didn’t want to do that and now, thank God, you don’t have to.”