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Verna Bloom, memorable in ‘Medium Cool’ and ‘Animal House,’ dies at 80

Ms. Bloom starred in the docudrama “Medium Cool’’ with Robert Forster.
Ms. Bloom starred in the docudrama “Medium Cool’’ with Robert Forster. (Paramount Pictures/1969)

Verna Bloom may have been born in Lynn, but there wasn’t a trace of her Greater Boston upbringing in her voice when she performed in Studs Terkel’s play “Amazing Grace” in the 1960s.

The play was set in an urban rooming house much like the place where Terkel — a broadcaster and author — had lived as a youth. Ms. Bloom’s small role called for her to speak like an Appalachian transplant to a big city.

In a 1969 interview with the Globe, she recounted that her accent had been so convincing a film director asked Terkel afterward: “Where did you find the Appalachian girl who could act so well.”

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The secret to being so persuasive lay in her preparation. “I spent two weeks studying the accent,” she told the Globe, adding that she had spent parts of days with Appalachian newcomers to Chicago. “I had a tape recorder and practiced the accent every night.”

Ms. Bloom, who went on to act in the 1969 film “Medium Cool,” and is perhaps best-remembered for her role as the spouse of the sinister Dean Wormer in the 1978 film “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” was 80 when she died Jan. 9 in Bar Harbor, Maine. Her husband, Jay Cocks, told The New York Times that the cause was complications of dementia.

She had been acting mostly on stage when her performance in “Amazing Grace” led Terkel to recommend her to cinematographer Haskell Wexler for his semi-documentary “Medium Cool,” Wexler’s first feature as a director.

Shot in cinema verite style, “Medium Cool” is the story of a local news cameraman (Robert Forster) who meets Eileen (Ms. Bloom), a poor woman from West Virginia who is raising her teenage son in Chicago. Forster’s character was covering the city’s social unrest amid rioting during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

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Some scenes were shot while the convention was being held and Wexler had not anticipated the violent protests. The finished movie combined real and staged scenes.

Blending those actual events with a fictional story, Wexler filmed Ms. Bloom — dressed in an easily seen canary yellow dress — walking through Grant Park, hoping to find her son while encountering demonstrators who had been bloodied and tear-gassed by police officers.

Wexler later conceded it had been cruel to send Ms. Bloom into peril. Cocks recalled that Wexler told him after the filming that he had not wanted her to return to the melee after the first day of shooting but that Ms. Bloom had insisted on continuing.

“Sure, I felt the sense of danger,” she said in a 1969 interview. “But I tried to stay on the fringe of it, to get away from the trouble.”

In the Globe interview that year, she recalled how well her first meeting with Wexler had gone when he asked to speak with her about the part in “Medium Cool.”

“Two minutes after Haskell and I started talking, I knew the role was mine,” she said. “We hit it off at once.”

Ms. Bloom followed “Medium Cool” with several prominent screen roles, including one opposite Clint Eastwood in his western “High Plains Drifter” (1973) and another as Frank Sinatra’s wife in the made-for-television detective movie “Contract on Cherry Street” (1977).

Few of her roles, however, resonated like Marion Wormer, the wife of Dean Vernon Wormer in “Animal House,” a hit comedy about a fraternity house at fictional Faber College. Directed by John Landis, it had a cast featuring John Belushi, Donald Sutherland, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce, and Tim Matheson.

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Ms. Bloom established her identity in her first scene with Otter, the suave leader of the frat who is played by Matheson. Otter clumsily tried to seduce her in a supermarket produce aisle by talking about cucumbers.

“My name is Eric Stratton,” Matheson said. “They call me Otter.”

“My name’s Marion,” Ms. Bloom responded. “They call me Mrs. Wormer.”

“We have a Dean Wormer at Faber.”

“What a coincidence,” she replied, puncturing his confidence. “I have a husband named Dean Wormer at Faber.”

She later showed up at the frat house’s toga party and ended up in bed with Matheson’s character.

In a telephone interview, Matheson told the Times that Ms. Bloom “didn’t look down at what we were doing and jumped right in.”

He added: “I was already in awe of her because I’d loved her in ‘Medium Cool’ and ‘High Plains Drifter.’ Here was this serious, accomplished, dramatic actress doing our silly little movie. Her commitment was just remarkable. She was fearless.”

Verna Frances Bloom was born on Aug. 7, 1938, in Lynn. Her father, Milton, owned a grocery store, and her mother, Sara Damsky Bloom, was a homemaker. When the couple divorced, she took over the store. She later became a bookkeeper for a trucking firm.

In the 1969 Globe interview, Ms. Bloom said that for her first dance recital as a girl, her mother made her such a beautiful blue tutu that young Verna nearly burst into tears with pride.

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Ms. Bloom began acting after receiving a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Boston University. With her first husband, Richard Collier, she started a repertory theater in Denver in the early 1960s.

Within a few years, she was divorced and in New York, working in the box office at the Martin Beck Theater during the Broadway run of Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade,” which had been a sensation in London. It takes place in the bathhouse of an insane asylum in France, where the Marquis de Sade, an inmate, stages a play for the other inmates.

Ms. Bloom watched “Marat/Sade,” which starred Glenda Jackson, over and over, and told the Globe that she memorized the play. In 1967, when “Marat/Sade” reopened on Broadway, Ms. Bloom was cast in the role that Jackson had played.

Not until the 1980s did Ms. Bloom return to Broadway, when she was cast in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” She was one of a number of actresses who succeeded Joyce Van Patten as Blanche Morton, the widowed aunt of the lead character.

In addition to Cocks, a critic and screenwriter, Ms. Bloom leaves her son, Sam Cocks.

Ms. Bloom’s final movie role was as Mary, Mother of Jesus, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). Fifteen years later, she played the stepmother of the White House press secretary C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) in an episode of “The West Wing.” It was her final television appearance.

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She did not find good roles forthcoming, and Cocks said she had chosen to focus on raising their son.

He said the western “The Hired Hand” (1971), Peter Fonda’s directorial debut, provided Ms. Bloom with her most fulfilling character: Hannah, who had been abandoned by her drifter husband (Fonda) years earlier but welcomes him back reluctantly because he has agreed to be her hired help.

“It was about a very independent, strong, sensual, vulnerable, demanding woman,” Cocks said. “A lot of her was in that role.”


Material from The New York Times was used in this report.