Mary Martin, Peter Pan to a nation, dies at 76

November 05, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

Mary Martin, the Broadway musical legend who portrayed Nellie Forbush and Maria von Trapp but who was Peter Pan to a mesmerized world, has died of cancer, it was reported yesterday.

Miss Martin, 76, died late Saturday at her Rancho Mirage, Calif., home, near Palm Springs, publicist Richard Grant said. Mr. Grant represents Miss Martin's son, "Dallas" TV star Larry Hagman.

She had been reported as seriously ill last month and hospitalized for a series of tests.

The spunky little lady from Texas who lit up stages and television studios for more than a half-century became a part of American theatrical history for her starring roles in the classic stage productions of "Peter Pan," "South Pacific," "The Sound of Music" and other masterpieces.

"I know that I'll miss her for the rest of my life," said her "Legends" co-star, Carol Channing, the singer-actress, who visited Miss Martin less than an hour before she died. Although Miss Martin could not talk, Miss Channing said she told her she was bringing friends' good wishes. "I said, 'I love you Mary,' and she tried to answer me. . . . Then she squeezed my hand and I knew she heard. . . . She squeezed my hand and I'll never forget it."

It was a final sign of the kind of vigor that did not desert Mary Martin in her decades on stage. "I have a fabulous adrenalin system," she said a few years ago. "It always peaked at 2 on matinee days and 5 for evening shows."

The comment reflected her preference for the stage, where she was a superstar from the moment of her debut, over Hollywood, where she once sought roles so futilely she was known as "Audition Mary."

Still performing in recent years, Miss Martin inspired other seniors with her upbeat comments on the aging process as co-host of the Public Broadcasting System show "Over Easy" and by bouncing back from a serious 1982 automobile accident in San Francisco where she was appearing on that show.

After taking singing lessons, Miss Martin signed up for an "opportunity night" at Hollywood's old Trocadero nightclub, with the prize a two-week paid engagement.

She did two things to separate herself from the other amateurs. Unable to afford the appropriate evening gown, she wore a very simple collegiate sweater and skirt. And she began singing the very serious "Il Bacio." Just as the audience started to hiss, she swung into a fast blues beat, and soon had them begging for encores.

In that audience was producer Lawrence Schwab, who signed her for what proved her Broadway break in "Leave It to Me." That was followed by a singing stint at New York's posh Rainbow Room, where critics described her as "a cute little package of dynamite."

During her time in Hollywood, she found and married her life partner, literary agent and editor Richard Halliday, who became her manager, producer and biggest supporter until his death in 1973. They had one daughter, Mary Heller Halliday DeMerritt, now of Houston.

Thereafter the theater regulated Miss Martin's life, and she proved as indomitable in body as in spirit.

If Mary Martin is remembered for a single role, that role unquestionably is the boy who wouldn't grow up, Peter Pan. It was a musical revival of the Sir James Barrie tale of the mischievous lad who took other children to his special never-land. It opened in 1954 to tumultuous reviews. Even though it didn't have the staying power of Miss Martin's other triumphs (152 performances), it became notched indelibly with her persona because of a live TV special in 1955 for which she won an Emmy and which has been repeated four times. It now is a best-seller on videocassette.

The punishing confines of Miss Martin's schedule, coupled with her injuries and a hysterectomy, led to a near-collapse in the late 1960s.

So, at the end of the run of "I Do, I Do," in 1969, Miss Martin and her husband retired to their farm in Brazil and lived there quietly until his death.

Describing herself as "devastated," the newly widowed Miss Martin returned to the United States and California to be closer to her children and grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in New York.

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