Eleanor Parker, Oscar-nominated actress and baroness in ‘Sound of Music,’ dies at 91

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported that Ms. Parker received her second Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in the film “Detective Story.” She received the nomination for best actress.


Eleanor Parker stands by an ancient gun of Palm Mallorca's wall on Feb. 28, 1967. (AP)
December 9, 2013

Eleanor Parker, an actress of patrician beauty nicknamed “the woman of a thousand faces” for the range of parts she played, from a terrified prisoner in “Caged” to the icy baroness in “The Sound of Music,” died Dec. 9 at a medical facility near her home in Palm Springs, Calif. She was 91.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said her son Paul Clemens.

Ms. Parker was nominated three times for an Academy Award. But if she is not remembered with the instant recall of a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, it may be because she was not entirely comfortable with film-star stereotyping.

“I'm primarily a character actress,” she told the Toronto Star in 1988. “I've portrayed so many diverse individuals on the screen that my own personality never emerged.”

In more than 45 films, she often used wigs, makeup and convincing accents to play characters who were sad, flawed or downright despicable.

A ravishing brunette, then blond and later a redhead with a husky, sultry voice, she exuded sex appeal in such films as “Pride of the Marines” (1945) with John Garfield, “Scaramouche” (1952) with Stewart Granger, and “Escape From Fort Bravo” (1953) with William Holden.

In “The Naked Jungle” (1954), she is the mail-order bride who intimidates a virginal South American plantation owner (Charlton Heston) with sex-charged repartee.

“The piano you're sitting at was never played before you came here,” Heston says at one point.

“If you knew more about music,” she says, “you'd know that a piano is better when it's played.”

She was the sluttish waitress Mildred Rogers in a remake of “Of Human Bondage” (1946), winning raves even if the film tanked. In “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955), she played the needy and ultimately deceitful wife of a former drug addict (Frank Sinatra) struggling to stay clean.

One of her most heralded but least seen performances was in “Lizzie” (1957), a film about a woman with multiple personalities. The movie had the misfortune of being released the same year as “The Three Faces of Eve,” which was heavily promoted to advance the career of newcomer Joanne Woodward.

Still, “Lizzie” remained a powerful and convincing portrayal of three separate identities in one body — a pathologically shy museum worker, a lusty barfly and a well-adjusted woman.

Instead of relying on film-editing tricks, Ms. Parker showed subtle but convincing shifts in character in view of the camera. The movie critic Judith Crist once called “Lizzie” a “neglected but fascinating” film that “boasts a stunning performance” by Ms. Parker.

To play the polio-stricken opera singer Marjorie Lawrence in “Interrupted Melody” (1955), Ms. Parker had to memorize 22 arias in 10 days. She locked herself in mountain cabin to do it. Although the soundtrack did not feature her voice — soprano Eileen Farrell dubbed the vocals — Ms. Parker needed to mimic convincingly in a foreign tongue. She said later she had no idea what she was singing.

Eleanor Jean Parker was born June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio, and raised in Cleveland Heights. She was a veteran stage actress by her late teens and turned down early screen test offers, once to finish high school and another time to study at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.

She then signed with Warner Bros. and served her apprenticeship in low-budget crime and suspense films. Gradually, she won ingenue parts in major productions, including Michael Curtiz's “Mission to Moscow” (1943) starring Walter Huston.

She became a leading lady as the wife of crippled concert pianist (Paul Henreid) in “Between Two Worlds” (1944) and “Pride of the Marines” (1945), as the wife of a blinded World War II hero (Garfield).

In 1950, she starred in “Caged,” for which she received her first Academy Award nomination as best leading actress. She played a woman unjustly sent to prison, where she is abused by a prison matron and hardens to the environment.

Her second Oscar nomination, for best actress, came the next year in “Detective Story.” In the film, she harbors a secret that may destroy her husband, a crusading policeman (Kirk Douglas).

Her final nomination, as best actress, came for “Interrupted Melody” (1955).

Director Robert Wise, who had worked with her on the film “Three Secrets” (1950) and admired her portrayal of cool reserve, cast her as Baroness Elsa Schraeder in “The Sound of Music” (1965), one of the biggest film successes of all time.

She also worked in television, winning the 1963 Emmy Award for outstanding single performance by an actress on the medical drama “The Eleventh Hour.” She played a woman whose fear of men leads her to drink and hallucinations.

Onstage, she replaced Lauren Bacall as Margo Channing in the touring company of “Applause,” based on “All About Eve,” the celebrated Bette Davis movie about theater people and ambition.

Richard L. Coe, reviewing the show in 1972 for The Washington Post, wrote of Ms. Parker that her intelligence and discipline proved “a deeper revelation than Miss Bacall’s original achieved.”

Perhaps the greatest notice of all came years earlier, when a gossip columnist did not even recognize the versatile actress when she dined out. “Who was that attractive girl with Eleanor Parker's husband last night?” the columnist wrote.

Her marriages to Dr. Fred Losee, producer Bert Friedlob and portrait painter Paul Lewis Clemens ended in divorce. Her fourth husband, businessman Raymond Hirsch, whom she married in 1966, died in 2001.

Survivors include three children from her second marriage, Susan Lev-Ron of Netanya, Israel, Sharon Patterson of Newbury Park, Calif., and Richard Parker of Texas; a son from her third marriage, Paul Clemens of West Los Angeles; a stepdaughter, Laurey Fontaine of Texas; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

adam.bernstein@washpost.com

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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