Marchand enriched television

Radio and Television

June 21, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Nancy Marchand, who died Sunday of cancer at her Connecticut home just one day short of her 72nd birthday, will be remembered as both the boss everyone wished they had and the mother we all thanked God wasn't ours.

As Margaret Pynchon, the steel-willed, principled publisher of the Los Angeles Tribune on "Lou Grant," Marchand was a force to be reckoned with, but never to be feared. Imperious, yet approachable, her Mrs. Pynchon was among the most beloved bosses on network television, not to mention one of the most honored - the role brought her four consecutive Emmys.

It's hard to believe Margaret Pynchon and Livia Soprano were members of the same species, let alone that they were played by the same person. In her best moments, Livia was a scheming, conniving, cold-hearted reptile whose favorite whipping post was her own son. It was their relationship, more than any other, that made the first season of HBO's "The Sopranos" a critical and popular phenomenon.

But even better, it introduced a whole new generation of television viewers to one of the medium's greatest actors.

Marchand excelled, whatever the forum. A stage actress from age 18, she made her Broadway debut in 1951, was nominated for a Tony for "White Liars and Black Comedy," and won Obies for her work off-Broadway in "The Balcony" and "The Cocktail Hour."

Her film credits stretch back to 1957's "The Bachelor Party" and include supporting roles in Paddy Chayefsky's "The Hospital" (1971) as well as "The Bostonians" (1984), "The Naked Gun" (1988) and the 1995 remake of "Sabrina."

But it was on television that Marchand's star shone brightest. From her breakthrough performance in a 1950 production of "Little Women," right up until weeks before her death with the conclusion of the second season of "The Sopranos," Marchand delivered performances marked by equal parts artistry, integrity and intensity.

Marchand was a frequent performer during television drama's first Golden Age. In 1953, she played the plain, painfully shy schoolteacher who unwittingly helps mama's boy Rod Steiger discover his own two feet in Chayefsky's "Marty," acknowledged as one of the half-dozen greatest dramas of the era.

Two decades of steady, if unspectacular, work followed. Then, in 1977, Marchand won the role that would guarantee her a place in television Valhalla. Mrs. Pynchon, who inherited the Tribune after the death of her husband, didn't always do the right thing - her penchant for bullheadedness often showed itself at inopportune moments, and her social standing sometimes blinded her to the shortcomings of her affluent friends. But she always tried to be reasonable, whether it came to dealing with a hot-headed reporter or settling a newspaper strike, and that was key.

In Marchand's capable hands, Mrs. Pynchon was a high-society steel magnolia, yet always with a reassuring twinkle in her eye. It seemed the perfect match of actor and role, and Marchand richly deserved every Emmy she won.

Too bad the Emmy folks failed to award her an Emmy for bringing Livia Soprano to our living rooms. If Mrs. Pynchon was a paradigm, Mrs. Soprano was a parasite, feeding off the wrecked lives of her own family.

But playing Livia as plain evil would have been easy and not worthy of Marchand's talents. As envisioned by series creator David Clark, she was as pitiable as she was malevolent. Yes, she was enraged when her son, Tony (James Gandolfini), stuck her in a nursing home. And yes, she did "convince" her brother-in-law, Junior, to try and kill him.

Marchand's performance left Livia's motives open to question. Was she really that evil, or was she senile? Did she mean for Junior to do what he did, or was it a mistake? And was her subsequent stroke real, or just a play for sympathy - and a way to keep Tony from killing a sick old woman? Although the encounters between Livia and Tony were the show's high-water marks, by the second season, Livia had become an afterthought. Originally written to die at the end of the first season, the producers decided to bring her back, even though Tony's determination never to talk to her again kept the show's two strongest characters from appearing together. And Marchand's illness necessitated a decrease in her workload.

Filming for a third season of "The Sopranos" is scheduled to begin this summer. With Marchand no longer around, it's safe to assume Livia Soprano will remain a strong, if unseen, presence. That's what great actors do - dominate the screen, even when they're not there.

WJZ and the NRA

About a dozen protesters carried signs and waved at motorists driving past the WJZ, Channel 13, studios Monday, protesting the station's decision to air a National Rifle Association infomercial on Father's Day.

The protesters included Ginni Wolf, whose husband, State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf, was fatally shot in his patrol car in 1990, and John Price, whose 13-year-old son was accidentally shot and killed by a 9-year-old playmate.

While acknowledging that WJZ has supported their efforts to control guns and reduce violence, the protesters said they were angered that the station accepted the NRA's money and ran the infomercial, which aired at noon Sunday and featured NRA President Charlton Heston promising to send a signed silver bullet to new members.

"Things like this promote violence and death," said Wolf. "It's just insensitive."

Channel 13 spokeswoman Liz Chuday said that the station will continue to "actively support through public service campaigns the effort to reduce gun violence."

She added, however, that the decision to air the NRA spot fulfills the station's obligation to provide public access to the media and reflects "solely the viewpoint of the advertiser."

A source at WJZ estimated the station received between 50 and 60 phone calls or e-mails concerning the NRA program. He also said there are no plans to air it again.

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