P erhaps you know her as Mrs. Braddock (pictured second), Dustin Hoffman’s concerned mom in the iconic 1967 coming-of-age movie The Graduate.
Or as Roz, the snitch who sat on the toilet seat in the ladies room writing on the only paper available, then tattled on the office girls—Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton—who were plotting against their oppressive boss in the memorable 1980 comedy 9 to 5.
Or as Abigail Craven, alias Dr. Greta Pinder-Schloss (pictured first), the deliciously conniving villain in The Addams Family, released in 1991.
Elizabeth Wilson of Branford is a character actress of the first order. At the age of 93—still marveling at her casting in The Graduate, calling it a “miracle” even though she’d already appeared many times on both the silver screen and the small screen—she can recall scripts and stars and screen appearances from Hollywood to Broadway. Her most recent work is as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother in Hyde Park on Hudson, with Bill Murray playing FDR; she didn’t care that much for Mr. Murray’s antics on and off set. Her gold-standard colleague is legendary actor Paul Scofield, who she appeared with in Quiz Show, the film about the rigged television game Twenty One.
Being inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in New York City in 2007, with a ceremony, dinner and plaque, was a highlight of her long and storied career. She happily remembers starring on Broadway in Picnic in 1952 and playing Linda Lavin’s mother in the Jules Feiffer play Little Murders. At a recent event at Sacred Heart University where Linda Lavin spoke about her career, the actresses enjoyed a tender and heartfelt reunion.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wilson endured a troubled childhood, though not for the usual reasons. “I came from a very difficult family ruled by my German grandfather. He was brilliant but knew little English. He was the dominant force in our home. He and my father, who was a tall, distinguished Princeton graduate, never spoke. So even though I lived in an enormous mansion, it was an unhappy existence.”
Wilson confesses she became an actress to escape that life, to run away from home and towards the glitter and glitz. She remembers sitting on her sun porch as a young teen, reading and telling herself stories about the people in them, and putting on plays with her siblings. Her mother found her a drama teacher and, at 14, she learned monologues. One of her early acting teachers, Sanford Meisner, told the young actress, “You have talent, and now I’m going to teach you how to act.” He coached her to ask of her character, “What does that person want?” And it’s served her well.
Later, while honing her talent and knowledge at the Barter Theater in Virginia, she met an actor doubling as the troupe’s bus driver, a young Ernest Borgnine. Not one to shy away from education, she’s also a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. While there, director Josh Logan cast her in Picnic, helping launch a career in which she’s gotten to do exactly what she loves. To this day, she still escapes by “reading a play and disappearing into the role.”
For her acting success, she partly credits necessity. “I had no choice. I had to do it to survive.” One of her favorite roles was Sofya Alexandrovna, played in Uncle Vanya alongside George C. Scott—a man she admits to loving, calling him “a dear.” For her earlier work in Sticks and Bones, a complicated play and “one of the hardest roles I’ve ever done,” she won a Tony Award for best supporting actress. The story concerns an America in denial about the Vietnam War and a veteran who returns from the battlefront and performs an obscene act with his own blind mother, played by Wilson. The production was courageously staged in 1972, in the thick of the entanglement.
If all of that weren’t enough, she’s also shared the screen with Judy Garland. Burt Lancaster. Doris Day. Paul Newman.
Not bad for a midwestern teenager daydreaming of Hollywood and Broadway, or for a Branford nonagenarian looking back on a life among the stars.
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Image #1 is a composite of stills featuring Elizabeth Wilson in The Addams Family (1991). Image #2 is a still from The Graduate (1967).