Mary Martin, 76, the actress who starred in some of the most memorable musicals on Broadway and who, as Peter Pan, soared across a Broadway stage, millions of television screens and into the nation's heart, died of cancer late Saturday at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
She made her Broadway debut in 1938 in "Leave It to Me." During the 1940s, she appeared in such stage hits as "One Touch of Venus" and "South Pacific." In the 1950s, she starred in "Annie Get Your Gun" and "The Sound of Music." Her last hit, "I Do! I Do!," began a run of 560 performances on Broadway in 1966. She also toured the world in "Hello Dolly."
She was the recipient of Tony and Emmy awards for "Peter Pan," as well as Tony awards for "Annie Get Your Gun" and "The Sound of Music." She won three New York Drama Critics Awards, and in 1989, received a Kennedy Center Honor award. She starred on the nation's stages for more than 30 years.
If critics remember her as an immensely gifted singer and talented actress who was the consummate stage professional, fans might remember her as simply a joyous performer who reveled in her work. The critics will remember her gigantic stage hits, especially "South Pacific," which ran 1,925 performances, and "The Sound of Music," which had a run of 1,443 performances.
But the public probably will remember her most fondly for "Peter Pan," which opened on Broadway on Oct. 20, 1954, for a comparatively short run of 142 performances. The play was televised live on NBC in 1955 and again in 1956. The cast was re-assembled and the musical taped in color by NBC in 1960. The play was shown on NBC four more times, the last in 1989. Earlier this year, it became available on videocassette tape.
Starring Miss Martin in the title role and Cyril Ritchard as the irrepressibly evil Captain Hook (and also as the foppishly frantic father, Mr. Darling), the James Barrie play about youth, pirates, Indians, mermaids and one crocodile, took on a magic of its own.
For the rest of her life, Miss Martin, who seldom met a part she did not love, more often than not called Peter Pan her favorite role. Whether strutting about the stage, magically flying across it, or reciting such lines as "I am youth, I am freedom, I am joy!" she entranced generations of youngsters and their parents.
"Peter Pan" included such memorable songs as "I Gotta Crow!" and "I'm Flying."
Mary Virginia Martin was born Dec. 1, 1913, in Weatherford, Tex. Her father practiced law and her mother was a violin teacher. Miss Martin made her local stage debut at the age of 5, singing "When Apples Grow on the Lilac Tree" at a firemen's ball.
"All my life," she later told a reporter, "I wanted to be Peter Pan. My poor mother never knew what I was going to do next. I don't think anything ever surprised my parents. I was always doing something strange -- like at 5, jumping off the garage. I wanted to fly, and all I did was break my collarbone."
After a year at the University of Texas, she went to California to seek her fortune as a singer, dancer and actress. She became a singer at the legendary Trocadero nightclub in Hollywood.
One of the people who saw her there was producer Lawrence Schwab, who found her a small part in the Broadway musical comedy "Leave It to Me."
Though it starred Sophie Tucker and Victor Moore, Miss Martin stole the show with a suggestive rendition of the Cole Porter song "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." She began the song enveloped in furs and seated on a trunk in a Siberian railway station, and proceeded to disrobe during the song.
As she later always pointed out, she always ended up with clothes still on at song's end. Her performance arguably made the song a hit, and the song undeniably led to her stardom.
After "Leave It to Me," she returned to Hollywood with a Paramount Pictures contract. From 1939 to 1943, she appeared in movies, including "The Great Victor Herbert," "Kiss the Boys Goodbye," "Birth of the Blues" and "Happy Go Lucky." None advanced her reputation.
She returned to Broadway in 1943 as the title character in "One Touch of Venus," a musical myth about a statue of the goddess magically coming to life. With songs by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ogden Nash, it ran 567 performances on Broadway. Miss Martin sang the show's big hit, "Speak Low."
After a triumphant national tour as Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun," she was chosen in 1949 by director-producer Joshua Logan (who had just finished directing "Mr. Roberts") to star opposite Ezio Pinza in his new musical, "South Pacific."
Based on the Pulitizer Prize-winning novel by James Michener, it had a musical score by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who by this time already had "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" to their musical credits.
The play, which opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theater on April 7, 1949, told of nurses, sailors, and one particular Frenchman, in the South Pacific as the Japanese closed in during World War II. Miss Martin portrayed the naive and admirable Army nurse Nellie Forbush from Little Rock. She spent three years on Broadway (and another in England) washing her hair nightly to accompany the song "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." Other hit songs she sang in that musical were "A Cockeyed Optimist," and "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy."
"The Sound of Music," which opened in November 1959, starred Miss Martin as the postulant Maria, who loved not only her religion but also children and perhaps a man. Based on the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp, "The Trapp Family Singers," it also included a Rodgers and Hammerstein score.
Miss Martin's songs in this musical surpassed even "South Pacific." Her songs included "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Me" and "The Lonely Goatherd." This show ran for more than three years on Broadway.
After starring in "I Do! I Do!" in 1966, she left the stage until 1978, when she returned in a show she did not like, "Do You Turn Somersaults?," which ran only two weeks. She then spent several years co-hosting the PBS talk show "Over Easy," which was aimed at older viewers.
She also appeared on an episode of television's "Love Boat." In 1986, she made a yearlong national tour in her last show, "Legends!," a comedy co-starring Carol Channing.
Miss Martin was seriously injured in a 1982 California automobile accident. Her manager, Ben Washer, was killed and actress Janet Gaynor, who was riding with Miss Martin, died as a result of the crash.
In 1969, Miss Martin published the book "Mary Martin's Needlepoint." In 1976, her autobiography, "My Heart Belongs," appeared. In it, she described herself as "kinda Texas cute."
Miss Martin's first marriage was to Texas lawyer Ben Hagman. They divorced after 11 months, shortly after the birth of their son, Larry, an actor who stars as J.R. Ewing in the television program "Dallas."
She married Richard Halliday, a Hollywood story editor who became her manager, in 1940. They had a daughter, Heller Halliday DeMeritt, and lived for several years on a farm in Brazil before his death in 1973.
In addition to her children, Miss Martin is survived by six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.