Lillian Gish, 99, silver screen legend, dies

March 01, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Lillian Gish, the last of the great silent film stars, who went on to perform for more than 85 years in movies, theater and television, died in her sleep Saturday evening at her New York City home. She was 99.

Her personal manager, James E. Frasher, said the cause was heart failure.

"She was the same age as film," Mr. Frasher said. "They both came into the world in 1893."

Miss Gish was still performing as recently as the late 1980s. In 1986, she appeared as Alan Alda's hilariously addled mother in "Sweet Liberty," and in 1987 she was widely praised for her sensitive portrayal of an indomitable old woman in "The Whales of August," which co-starred another movie legend, Bette Davis.

"To become an actress, one cannot begin too soon," said Miss Gish, and she meant it, for she had made her acting debut at the age of 5.

Under the guidance of the director D. W. Griffith, Miss Gish was to become the pre-eminent actress in silent films, appearing in classics like "The Birth of a Nation," "Intolerance," "Broken Blossoms" and "Way Down East."

After performing in dozens of one- and two-reel silent movies (with running times of 10 or 20 minutes) and then in the longer Griffith epics, Miss Gish made a successful transition into the "talkies," and later into television.

Between film and television roles, she also worked on the stage. In 1930, she starred as Helena in Jed Harris' Broadway production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," and in 1973 she appeared as the nurse in Mike Nichols' revival of the play. She made her last Broadway appearance in 1975, in "A Musical Jubilee."

Especially in her youth, Miss Gish evoked an aura of fragility and hers was a vulnerable waiflike beauty. "I didn't care about being a beauty," she said in an interview in 1975. "I wanted to be an actress. When I was in the movies, I didn't care what I looked like, except for that image up there on the screen. I wanted to create beauty when it was necessary; that's an inner thing. But if all you have is a facade, it isn't interesting."

Lillian Diana Gish, a daughter of the former Mary Robinson McConnell and James Gish, was born on Oct. 14, 1893, in Springfield, Ohio. The family moved to Baltimore, where Gish became a partner in a candy store. Shortly before the turn of the century, he abandoned his wife and two daughters. He died in 1911.

Mrs. Gish took her daughters to New York City, rented an apartment on West 34th Street in Manhattan that was large enough to include two boarders and began working in a department store. When Lillian was 5, a Gish boarder, an actress named Alice Niles, persuaded Mrs. Gish to let her take the child with her to act in a production of "In Convict's Stripes," which played one-night stands across the country. Young Lillian's salary was $10 a week.

Miss Gish made the transition from silents to talkies in 1930 in "One Romantic Night," with Rod LaRocque and Conrad Nagel. By that time, she had signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "My contract called for six pictures in two years, for which I was paid, I believe, a million dollars," she wrote.

Miss Gish made a triumphant return to the stage in 1930 in "Uncle Vanya" on Broadway. In 1936, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud's Hamlet and Judith Anderson's Queen Gertrude, and, in 1941, she began a record-breaking 66-week run in "Life With Father" in Chicago. In 1960, she starred in "All the Way Home" on Broadway.

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