Una Merkel, 82, a Tony Award-winning actress whose Hollywood career began in silent films and included sound comedy classics like W.C. Fields' "The Bank Dick," died here Jan. 2. The cause of death was not reported.
She won a Tony in 1956 for best supporting actress in "The Ponder Heart" on Broadway and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in Hollywood's "Summer and Smoke" in 1962.
Onstage, she bore a striking resemblance to actress Lillian Gish. Miss Merkel's fluttery mannerisms and high-pitched drawl made her a leading movie "nitwit" during the heyday of frothy Hollywood comedies in the 1930s. Miss Merkel launched her career on the silent screen and was part of a nearly extinct cadre of entertainers who made the successful transition from silent movies to talkies.
Although she received an Oscar nomination for "Summer and Smoke" in 1962 and won a Tony Award in 1956 for her performance in Broadway's "The Ponder Heart," she was perhaps best known as the sweet but daffy blonde who never got her man.
Using her scatterbrained, drawling banter, she starred in a string of commerical triumphs through the 1930s and 1940s, playing opposite such comics as Harold Lloyd, Charles Butterworth and W.C. Fields and becoming best on-screen buddies with Ruby Keeler, Janet Gaynor, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard.
She wisecracked her way through "Broadway Melody of 1936," "Biography of a Bachelor Girl," "Evelyn Prentice," "Born to Dance," "Saratoga," and two dozen other films in the 1930s. One of her most memorable scenes was in "Destry Rides Again," in which she engaged in a savage saloon fight with Marlene Dietrich.
"I always played sort of nitwit, dizzy roles," Merkel once told United Press International. "As I got older I got tired of playing dizzy telephone operators. Then the movies weren't doing dizzy telephone operators anymore."
Miss Merkel dropped out of the Hollywood scene in the 1950s and returned to New York, where she won critical acclaim for "The Ponder Heart." That success eventually persuaded film producers to cast her in more serious roles, such as Geraldine Page's bitter mother in the film version of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke." She did have to submit to a screen test, however, even though she had already performed it on stage.
She was divorced from aircraft executive Ronald Burla in 1946, the year after she was nearly killed when her mother committed suicide by turning on the gas in the New York apartment they shared.
Miss Merkel was born in Kentucky and moved to Hollywood as a teen-ager seeking a career in film. Her resemblance to Gish in her early years attracted the attention of director D.W. Griffith, who made her a stand-in in "Way Down East" in 1920 and "The White Rose" in 1923.
Her first feature film was in the long forgotten "The Fifth Horseman" in 1924, after which she returned to New York and was eventually cast with Helen Hayes in "Coquette" before going back to Hollywood to launch her successful comic career.
The last of her 67 film credits was for "Spinout" with Elvis Presley in 1966. After that there were only a few television appearances. For the past several years, she had lived quietly in Los Angeles.
She leaves no immediate survivors.