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Actress Teresa Wright, 86; Won Oscar in 'Mrs. Miniver'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page B06

Teresa Wright, 86, the winsome actress who received three Academy Award nominations -- winning once -- but harmed her film career by refusing to pose in tight sweaters or make other publicity gestures for producer Samuel Goldwyn, died March 6 at a hospital in New Haven, Conn., after a heart attack.

A perceptive and intelligent performer, Ms. Wright earned the acclaim of top directors of her day. One of the finest, William Wyler, called Ms. Wright the most promising actress he had directed. Ultimately, it was an independent streak and a view that actors were not to be exploited for commerce that caused an irreparable rift with Goldwyn, the man who launched her film career.

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He had given her an exhilarating film debut, opposite Bette Davis and directed by Wyler in "The Little Foxes" (1941). She received her first Oscar nomination as best supporting actress as the pure-hearted child among Southern vipers.

Wyler also guided her as the love interest in the wartime home-front drama "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) -- for which she won the Oscar as best supporting actress -- and as a young woman who falls in love with returning, married war veteran Dana Andrews in "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946).

"He liked to rehearse, but he didn't do a lot of talking about your character or give you a lot of instructions," she once said of Wyler. "He knew it was all there in the script, and it was up to you to find it. . . . I've done 40, 45 takes with him, but there have been occasions when I've done a scene in one take. He just wanted to get it right, and sometimes as he went on he discovered another quality, a better way of doing something."

Sam Wood directed her for her Oscar-nominated leading role as the wife of doomed baseball legend Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees" (1942). Gary Cooper was Gehrig, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

She also was the small-town beauty who realizes that her adored uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is a psychopath in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), which the director called his favorite film.

In interviews, Ms. Wright gave the impression of being demure. In fact, she fought fiercely with Goldwyn about her contracts, stipulating outright that she could refuse to participate in cheesecake photos and leaks to the press about her romances.

For a while, the arrangement worked. As her profile increased, Goldwyn made demands that she resented. They included being loaned out to other studios, which she considered a violation of loyalty, and being given short notice for an extensive publicity tour when she was raising children.

Strong words were exchanged, and Goldwyn fired Ms. Wright in 1948. Her film career faltered, but with some historical footnotes. She played the love interest of a paraplegic veteran portrayed by Marlon Brando in his film debut, "The Men" (1950). Ms. Wright accepted a far lower salary that she could command because of the movie's brave message.

She later told the Toronto Star: "I wanted to be fired because I didn't like being owned. . . . So I turned down a big-paying role to do 'The Men' for far less money, and all I proved was that I was an actress who would work for $25,000 instead of $200,000."

Muriel Teresa Wright was born Oct. 27, 1918, in New York and raised in Maplewood, N.J. She said she floated among lots of relatives as her insurance agent father traveled and her mother "was not around."

"Very early I got to know a lot of different lifestyles," she said, "and I think that's good for an actress."

Acting since childhood, she was immediately stage-struck after seeing Helen Hayes on Broadway in "Victoria Regina." Ms. Wright went from high school student to movie star in roughly three years -- from summer stock in Provincetown, Mass., to understudy in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" on Broadway to ingenue in "Life With Father," the Howard Lindsay-Russel Crouse hit that ran for years.

When Goldwyn spotted her in "Life With Father," he offered her a part in the film version of Lillian Hellman's play "The Little Foxes." Other film highlights included two psychological Westerns written by her first husband, Niven Busch: "Pursued" (1947) with Robert Mitchum and "The Capture" (1950) with Lew Ayres.

When "The Men" proved a commercial dud, she returned to the stage. Some of her Broadway credits included William Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1957), directed by Elia Kazan, and "I Never Sang For My Father" (1968), written by her second husband, Robert Anderson.

More recently, she appeared in grandmotherly roles, including "The Rainmaker" (1997) with Matt Damon.

Her marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from her first marriage, Mary-Kelly Busch of Clinton, Conn., and Niven Terence Busch of Indianapolis; and two grandchildren, one of whom, Jonah Smith, helped produce Darren Aronofsky's films "Pi" (1998) and "Requiem for a Dream" (2000).

Smith accompanied his grandmother to Yankee Stadium in 1998 when she was invited because of her role in "Pride of the Yankees" to throw the ceremonial first pitch. It was Ms. Wright's first visit to the stadium and sparked an interest in baseball -- "it was as if she was possessed," her daughter said -- as well as her involvement as a fundraiser for the Greater New York chapter of the ALS Association.

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