Susan Tyrrell, actress who gave searing portrait of alcoholism in ‘Fat City,’ dies at 67

June 19, 2012

Susan Tyrrell, an actress who gave one of the screen’s most convincing and textured portraits of alcoholism as the young barfly in director John Huston's 1972 boxing movie “Fat City,” died June 16 at her home in Austin. She was 67.

The death was confirmed by her niece Amy Sweet. An official at the Travis County medical examiner’s office said determination of the cause of death is pending.

Ms. Tyrrell, who appeared in more than 75 movies and television shows, had used a wheelchair for the past 12 years after her legs were amputated below the knee as a result of complications from a blood clotting disorder.

Susan Jillian Creamer was born in San Francisco on March 18, 1945, and raised in New Canaan, Conn. Her father, an advertising executive and former talent agent, helped propel his daughter’s early acting career. She won several off-Broadway roles, usually as a sexpot.

Her movie breakthrough was “Fat City,” which starred Stacy Keach as a broken-down fighter in Stockton, Calif., and Jeff Bridges as a young boxing hopeful. Ms. Tyrrell’s character, Oma, who spends much of the film drunk on cream sherry, temporarily shacks up with Keach while her lover is in jail.

Ms. Tyrrell, then 26, lobbied Huston for the role by saying, “I know you think I’m too young for the part, but I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a 35-year-old barfly, but there is about a 26-year-old barfly. Why is she there?”

Ms. Tyrrell played the role forcefully: tender one minute, unremittingly sad the next, bouncing from pity to love to rage. Her voice, pathetically scratchy, conveyed deep vulnerability but did not fall back on likability.

Reviewing “Fat City” in the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called Ms. Tyrrell “one of the first believable drunks I’ve ever seen on screen.”

Ms. Tyrrell, who liked to be called SuSu, received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role but went on to an erratic and sporadic career.

She appeared in “Andy Warhol’s Bad” (1977), played a three-inch-tall woman in “Big Top Pee-Wee” (1988) and was Johnny Depp’s biker grandmother in director John Waters’s comedy “Cry-Baby” (1990). In the 1980s, she played a lesbian friend of the title character in the prostitute-as-vigilante movie series “Angel.”

In interviews, Ms. Tyrrell frequently made rambling comments about her turbulent personal life. She was estranged from her mother, claimed Huston sexually assulted her and was drawn to a wild social orbit that frowned on anything conventional. She abused beer and acid (“my best drugs”) and later mescaline.

She made many friends but once described herself as a “loner and an outsider.”

“For me,” she told the Austin American-Statesman, “there is not strength in numbers.”

She had a series of romantic relationships, including one with Herve Villechaize, the diminutive actor best known for playing Tattoo on the TV show “Fantasy Island.”

In the late 1980s, she mounted a one-woman autobiographical play, “My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta.”

— From staff and wire reports

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