NEW YORK — Carole Shelley, who played one of the bubbly Pigeon sisters in the stage, screen, and television versions of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” and won a Tony Award in 1979 for portraying a woman who develops an emotional connection to the disfigured title character in “The Elephant Man,” died Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 79.
The cause was cancer, said a friend, actor Barrie Kreinik.
Ms. Shelley, who was born in London and began her career there, strove to convey complexity, even in characters who might appear shallow.
“I play light comedy with the same intensity I’d give to Lady Macbeth,” she told The New York Times in 1979. “The energy is the same, the truth is the same.”
Ms. Shelley, who also originated the role of Madame Morrible in the long-running Broadway musical “Wicked,” first appeared on Broadway in 1965 in the original production of “The Odd Couple.” She played Gwendolyn Pigeon, one of two giggly, single English sisters who live upstairs from the apartment shared by the slovenly Oscar (played by Walter Matthau) and finicky Felix (Art Carney). Monica Evans played her sister, Cecily.
The sisters were initially in only the first part of the comedy, which had a pre-Broadway run in Boston. An otherwise positive review by esteemed critic Elliot Norton complained about the play’s dull ending. On Norton’s television show, he told Simon he wished the Pigeon sisters would reappear in the third act.
“A light bulb did not go on above my head. It was a two-mile-long neon sign. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? The Pigeon sisters, of course!’’ Simon wrote in his memoir ‘’Rewrites.’’
Ms. Shelley and Evans played the same parts in the 1968 film adaptation of “The Odd Couple,” with Jack Lemmon as Felix and Matthau as Oscar; and early episodes of the television version, which started in 1970 and starred Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
The Pigeon sisters (who share their given names with characters in the Oscar Wilde play “The Importance of Being Earnest”) inject a delightful kookiness into the slob-neatnik dynamic of Oscar and Felix. In the play, when Felix meets the sisters, he describes his occupation: “I write the news for CBS.” Gwendolyn asks innocently, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
After “The Odd Couple” ended its Broadway run in 1967, Ms. Shelley appeared on Broadway in comedies such as Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absurd Person Singular” and the revue “Nöel Coward’s Sweet Potato.” But by the mid-1970s she wanted to test herself as a dramatic actor.
“I felt I was not being used fully,” she told the Times in 1979. “In fact, not only wasn’t I plumbing my own depths, I didn’t even know if I had any real depths to plumb.”
She played Rosalind in “As You Like It” and Regan in “King Lear” at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, an experience she called “months of the most intensive deep-water swimming — more than I’d ever been called upon to do in my life.”
“The clown was finally allowed to play Hamlet, so to speak,” she continued.
“The Elephant Man,” which opened on Broadway in 1979, gave Ms. Shelley her dramatic breakthrough, as Madge Kendal.
The play by Bernard Pomerance tells the story of a severely disfigured man who is taken from a freak show to a hospital in Victorian London by a well-meaning doctor. It is based on the life of Joseph Merrick.
Kendal, an actor, is hired by the doctor to spend time with Merrick after a nurse flees him and orderlies gawk at his appearance. At first she can barely stifle her disgust, but in time she recognizes Merrick’s humanity and develops an affection for him.
In one poignant moment she shakes Merrick’s hand, a movement Ms. Shelley said she ad-libbed; in another she strips to the waist before him, a scene of surprising intimacy.
Ms. Shelley said she adored the role.
“So much of what I’ve been working toward in the past few years — the effort to achieve stillness, spareness, clarity in my acting — seems to have come together in Mrs. Kendal,” she said.
Critic Richard Eder, writing in The Times, said of the performance, “She is strained, moved, tender and funny by turns; beating her way like a golden bird through Merrick’s deformities and into his feelings.”
The performance won her the Tony for best leading actress in a play.
A new generation of theatergoers knew Ms. Shelley for originating a less sympathetic character in the musical “Wicked,” a prequel of sorts to L. Frank Baum’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
She played Madame Morrible, a college official who pairs two witches, Glinda and Elphaba, as roommates. She later helps arrange a series of events, including the killing of Elphaba’s sister, that push Elphaba toward wickedness.