Obituaries

Susan Anspach, 75, daring actress in maverick films

In “Five Easy Pieces.’’ Ms. Anspach played a New Age intellectual who sleeps with Jack Nicholson’s character.
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In “Five Easy Pieces.’’ Ms. Anspach played a New Age intellectual who sleeps with Jack Nicholson’s character.

NEW YORK — Susan Anspach, the radiant and rebellious actress who personified the 1960s-into-the-’70s counterculture in films like “Five Easy Pieces” and “Blume in Love,” as well as in the stage musical “Hair,” died Monday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 75.

Her son, Caleb Goddard, said the cause was coronary failure.

Ms. Anspach had the distinction of playing Sheila, the good-girl-turned-hippie female lead, in the off-Broadway production of the musical “Hair” that immediately preceded the Broadway run.

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The show, which shocked some audiences with its antiwar message, celebration of nonmarital sex, and all-nude final scene, ran 45 performances at the Cheetah Theater, a club on West 53rd Street. That was in December 1967. When “Hair” opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater in April 1968, Lynn Kellogg was Sheila.

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Ms. Anspach’s film career, which began soon afterward, hit the ground running. Her first role was in Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (1970), about a young white man (Beau Bridges) who buys a building in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Her second movie, the same year, was the now-classic “Five Easy Pieces,” directed by Bob Rafelson, in which she played the sophisticated New Age intellectual who sleeps with Jack Nicholson’s character despite being engaged to his brother.

In “Play It Again, Sam” (1972), there she was in flashbacks as Woody Allen’s blatantly critical ex-wife. (“I don’t feel any rapport with you, and I don’t dig you physically,” she says, cautioning him a minute later, “Don’t take it personal.”)

In “Blume in Love” (1973), she left her stuffy divorce-lawyer husband (George Segal), let her hair go wild, and moved in with a shaggy out-of-work musician (Kris Kristofferson) who wrote songs about being free.

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Writing about “Montenegro,” a low-profile 1981 comedy set in Sweden, in which she played a bored American wife raucously trying to find her true self, Vincent Canby of The New York Times described her as “one of America’s most daring and talented actresses and who has yet to land a film role that shows her off to full advantage.” Some would argue that she never did.

“I was getting reviews that compared me to Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis,” Ms. Anspach told People magazine in 1978. “But there were no Hepburn or Davis parts.”

Susan Florence Anspach was born in Queens, New York, and raised at first by a great-aunt. She was 6 when the aunt died, and she went back to live with her parents, Renald Anspach, a World War II Army veteran and later a factory worker, and the former Gertrude Kehoe, a secretary and the daughter of a Wall Street banker who had disowned her when, in his view, she married down.

Susan left home at 15 and, with a Roman Catholic organization’s help, moved in with a family in Harlem. She received a full scholarship to the Catholic University of America in Washington, where she studied music and drama, and made her professional debut in Thornton Wilder’s one-act play “Pullman Car Hiawatha” at a summer theater in Maryland.

In New York, Ms. Anspach had the good luck to fall in with a company of young actors that included Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, and Jon Voight, who were then unknown. She made her New York stage debut in a 1965 off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” with Duvall and Voight; she appeared with Hoffman the next year in Turgenev’s “The Journey of the Fifth Horse.”

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Her two Broadway appearances, in “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” (1965) and “Lovers” (1968), were brief. Around the same time, she was making her first television appearances; “The Patty Duke Show” and “The Defenders” were among her early credits.

In addition to her son, whose father is Jack Nicholson, she leaves a daughter, Catherine Goddard, whose father was Steve Curry, a cast member of “Hair”; a brother, Robert; and three grandchildren.

Although Ms. Anspach often said that she disdained marriage, she did marry and divorce twice. Her first husband, from 1970 to 1978, was actor Mark Goddard, who adopted her children. Her second was the musician Sherwood Ball, from 1982 to 1988.