Shirley Booth, actress who played 'Hazel'

October 21, 1992|By Burt A. Folkart | Burt A. Folkart,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- Shirley Booth, whose dramatic triumphs ranged from the tortured wife in the poignant "Come Back Little Sheba," to the pleasantly arrogant "Hazel" in the long-running television series of the 1960s, has died at her Cape Cod home in Massachusetts.

A spokesman for The Nickerson Funeral Homes in Orleans, Mass., said yesterday that Mrs. Booth, a Tony, Emmy and Academy Award winner, was 94 when she died Friday. She had been inactive for many years and had been living quietly and little noticed in the Cape Cod village of Chatham.

Few actors in the modern American theater were as facile and free-wheeling as Shirley Booth, born Thelma Booth Ford in New York City. From the garrulous, domineering, slightly daft maid Hazel Burke, which brought her two Emmys, to the slovenly Lola Delaney, wife of a recovering alcoholic in "Sheba," for which she won both a Tony and an Oscar, she was considered a master at her craft.

"Sheba," filmed in 1952, was her first picture, winning her a best actress award over such dominant talent as Joan Crawford and Julie Harris. She also was the original Dolly Levi, the "Matchmaker" in the Broadway play on which the musical "Hello Dolly" was based.

But neither stage, film nor television were her primary interests, she said in a 1971 interview. She said she would be perfectly content to live in Cape Cod with her pet poodle Prego and her memories of William H. Baker, the Army corporal she married in 1943 and who died eight years later of heart disease.

Mr. Baker had been her second husband. Her first was Ed Gardner, host of radio's old "Duffy's Tavern," on which she played the light-hearted Miss Duffy. They divorced two years after their 1938 marriage.

Despite another Emmy nomination for the 1966-67 TV version of "Glass Menagerie," in which she played Amanda, and her winning of two other Tonys (1953 for "Time of the Cuckoo" and 1949 for "Goodbye, My Fancy"), the diminutive actress will probably be best remembered as the lovingly cantankerous Hazel.

In that series, which ran from 1961 to 1966, she took total control of the home of George Baxter, a highly successful lawyer played by Don DeFore. While he may have been in charge of his life during the day, he surrendered all control once he crossed his own threshold.

Hazel, his housekeeper, not only overruled his domestic decisions, but always knew what was proper for his career. In the final year of the show Mr. Baxter left and Hazel went to work for his brother, continuing her running dominance of another household. The role was light years removed from the grand dames or helpless wives she had interpreted on stage, but she welcomed the routine of television.

"I like being told what to do," she said, also acknowledging the series had made her into a rich woman.

That affluence came many years after she had begun appearing in amateur plays when she was a young girl in New York and later in Hartford, Conn., where she also made her professional debut in 1923 in "The Cat and the Canary."

Her Broadway debut came in 1925 in a supporting role in "Hell's Angels," which starred another newcomer, Humphrey Bogart. She played with Katharine Hepburn in "Philadelphia Story," and with Ralph Bellamy in "Tomorrow the World."

Her other plays included "Time of the Cuckoo" and "By the Beautiful Sea," while her movies included "About Mrs. Leslie," "The Matchmaker" and "Hot Spell," her last in 1958.

In 1973, she returned to TV in a short-lived series, "A Touch of Grace," as a widow who moves in with her daughter and son-in-law.

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