Sylvia Miles, actress with a flair for the flamboyant, dies at 94
NEW YORK — Sylvia Miles, who earned two Academy Award nominations (for “Midnight Cowboy” and “Farewell, My Lovely”) and decades of glowing reviews for her acting before drawing equal attention for her mid-life transition to constant partygoer and garishly flamboyant dresser, died Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, publicist Mauricio Padilha. He said she died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.
Blond-maned and nasal-voiced, Ms. Miles was in her mid-40s when she portrayed, briefly, a well-groomed, poodle-owning Upper East Side hooker (her building has a doorman) who manages to out-hustle Jon Voight’s character, an aspiring prostitute himself, in “Midnight Cowboy” (1969).
She earned her second Oscar nomination for a 5 1/2-minute scene with Robert Mitchum in “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), based on a crime novel by Raymond Chandler. He was the detective Philip Marlowe, and she was a former entertainer wearing a bathrobe in the middle of the day who trades information for a bottle of bourbon. Perhaps her most memorable line was, “When I like a guy, the ceiling’s the limit.”
In between, as the sexual revolution hit its peak, she established a reputation as daring and bawdy. She starred as an aging movie actress enjoying a younger man (Joe Dallesandro) in “Heat” (1972), an X-rated film directed by Paul Morrissey, under the aegis of Andy Warhol. She appeared bare-breasted in European posters for the film and posed nude (with a group of men, also naked) for a magazine layout.
Criticized widely, she was quoted in Earl Wilson’s column in The New York Post as saying: “What’s wrong with it? They’re all friends of mine.”
But her acting abilities were taken seriously.
“Sylvia Miles is something special, a persona,” Vincent Canby wrote, reviewing “Heat” in The New York Times. He added, “She looks great even when she looks beat, and because she’s a good actress she automatically works 10 times as hard as everyone else to enliven the movie.”
She was, however, beginning to acquire a reputation for going to every party possible in whatever town she was in.
In 1976, People magazine ran an article with the headline “What Would a Manhattan Party Be Without the Ubiquitous Sylvia Miles?” In 1980, Roger Ebert, the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, interviewed her at a publicity brunch in Los Angeles. “And if a brunch is a party, why then, of course that is Sylvia Miles in the corner,” Ebert wrote. “She is dressed as a cross between an Indian princess, a hippie, and a bag lady.”
That reputation was said to be at issue in her most notorious altercation. At a party during the New York Film Festival in 1973, she approached theater critic John Simon and dumped a plate of food on his head to protest his New York magazine review of “Nellie Toole & Co.,” an off-Broadway play in which she was starring. Her actions were not, she said later, motivated by what he had written about her performance; rather, she said, she was upset that he had referred to her as “one of New York’s leading party girls and gate-crashers.” She never gate-crashed, she said.
Sylvia Miles was born in New York City on Sept. 9, 1924 (though for many years she listed her birth year as 1932). She revealed little about her parents to interviewers, but according to some sources she was the daughter of Reuben Lee, a furniture maker who had a factory in Manhattan, and Belle (Fellman) Lee. She grew up in Greenwich Village and attended Washington Irving High School and Pratt Institute. She studied at the Actors Studio.
Ms. Miles began her career as a stage actress, making her off-Broadway debut in 1954 in “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” with Zero Mostel. She was, in fact, considered an off-Broadway pioneer. She played Marlyse, the brothel thief, in José Quintero’s Obie-winning production of “The Balcony” at Circle in the Square Downtown in 1960 and worked often with Quintero. (Although she often mentioned having been in his landmark 1956 production of “The Iceman Cometh,” with Jason Robards, she did not originate the role of Margie the prostitute; she replaced Eileen Ryan in 1957.)
Ms. Miles was a witch in “A Chekhov Sketchbook” (1962), starred opposite Rip Torn in “The Kitchen” (1966), and earned the Times critic Clive Barnes’s praise for “very fine acting” as a “delicately vulgar” mother in “Rosebloom” (1972).
Her only Broadway appearances were in the short-lived “The Riot Act” (1963), as a waitress engaged to a police sergeant and in the high-profile 1976 revival of Tennessee Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana,” as Maxine, the lusty, widowed hotel owner, opposite Richard Chamberlain.
When she tried an off-Broadway solo show, in 1981, perhaps too much water had flowed under the bridge. The show, “It’s Me, Sylvia,” for which she wrote the book and lyrics (Galt MacDermot, best known for “Hair,” wrote the music), ran only nine performances.
Her film debut was in the crime drama “Murder Inc.” (1960), with Stuart Whitman. She was a flirtatious tobacco worker in “Parrish” (1961). She described her character in the 1977 horror film “The Sentinel” as “a mad dead crazed German zombie lesbian ballet dancer.”
Her other film roles included the aggressive matchmaker who introduces Amy Irving to a pickle merchant in “Crossing Delancey” (1988); an opinionated real estate agent in “Wall Street” (1987); a corrupt congresswoman in Morrissey’s 1988 Mafia comedy, “Spike of Bensonhurst”; a script clerk in Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” (1971); Meryl Streep’s mother in “She-Devil” (1989); and herself in the documentary “Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol” (1990).
She married and divorced three times. Her first husband (1948-’50) was William Miles, whose name she kept. Her second (1952-’58) was Gerald Price, an actor; her third (1963-’70) was Ted Brown, the New York radio talk-show host and disc jockey.