Anne Jackson, an actress of formidable range — from absurdist comedy to stark drama — who performed in more than two dozen Broadway shows, several opposite her husband, Eli Wallach, died April 12 at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.
A daughter, actress Roberta Wallach, confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.
The Wallachs, one of the great theatrical couples of the last century, followed in the playfully bantering tradition of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as well as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Because of the Wallachs’ working-class New York roots — both were raised in Brooklyn — they were dubbed “the Proletarian Lunts.”
Their work — together and apart — was rich and varied. They met in 1946 while appearing in a Tennessee Williams one-act play, “This Property is Condemned.” As Wallach toggled between the stage and notable supporting film roles, often as the heavy, Ms. Jackson remained a stalwart of the New York theater scene, excelling in comically neurotic and offbeat parts.
Her breakthrough was Edward Chodorov’s farce centered on a psychoanalyst, “Oh, Men! Oh, Women!” (1953), in which she rendered a 20-minute monologue as an especially chatty patient. She drew a Tony nomination three years later for best featured actress in “Middle of the Night,” a Paddy Chayefsky drama in which she played the overbearing daughter of a garment manufacturer.
The Wallachs hit their greatest stride as a theater team beginning with Eugene Ionesco’s anti-conformist satire “Rhinoceros” (1961). Both received Obie Awards for the 1963 off-Broadway production of two Murray Schisgal one-acts: “The Typists,” as office drones whose entire lives seem to pass before them in the space of an hour, and “The Tiger.”
“The Tiger” was based on an unsettling premise of a frustrated postman who kidnaps a Long Island housewife to have his way with her. But, as a self-proclaimed genius, his intent is not sexual but intellectual: He forces her to listen to his embittered tirades against society, the origin of which was his failure to pass a French class in high school.
Ms. Jackson’s character, a sexually discontented chatterbox married to a dimwit, agrees to meet her kidnapper every week for sex and French lessons. The Wallachs also starred in the 1967 film version, retitled “The Tiger Makes Out.”
They had their greatest onstage success in Schisgal’s “Luv” (1964), directed by Mike Nichols and which ran three years. The comedy was about a pathologically unhappily married couple — Ms. Jackson was the brainy wife who keeps flowcharts on her faltering love life and their chance encounter with a third comically sick soul, played by Alan Arkin.
A 1973 staging of Jean Anouilh’s dark comedy “The Waltz of the Toreadors” provided Ms. Jackson with a vivid role as the shrewish wife of a middle-aged military officer (Wallach) who cannot overcome a long-ago infatuation with a dance partner. “Jackson is an awesome virago who delivers her lines like bayonet thrusts,” Time magazine drama critic T.E. Kalem wrote.
Ms. Jackson was singled out for her anguished portrayal of accused atomic spy Ethel Rosenberg in Donald Freed’s “The Inquest,” which had a brief Broadway run in 1970. On regional stages, she appeared to acclaim opposite her husband in Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” in 1959 and Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy “Absent Friends” (1977), in which she played a frazzled hostess suspicious of her husband’s fidelity.
Foremost, they were regarded as keen interpreters of Schisgal, a writer whose idiosyncratic comic sensibility was summed up in lines such as, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life here or anyplace else.” Beyond expert comic timing, the Wallachs were praised for giving Schisgal’s off-center and defeated characters an emotional core.
In 1982, while appearing on Broadway in a doubleheader of Schisgal’s work — “A Need for Brussels Sprouts” and “A Need for Less Expertise” — the Wallachs explained how their offstage sparring often brought an unspoken depth to the plays.
“So,” Wallach said, “in the ‘Expertise’ play, when I say, ‘You shut up,’ there’s an added edge to it. Her eyes crinkle up and her nose crinkles up, and she knows I’m getting even.”
Anna Jane Jackson was born in Millvale, Pa. on Sept. 3, 1925, and grew up in Brooklyn. In her well-received memoir, “Early Stages,” she focused on how her life was shaped by her parents’ turbulent marriage. Her father, a Croatian-born barber with rigid Marxist political beliefs, liked to announce his presence by calling himself “Citizen John Jackson.”
Her mother, the former Stella Murray, was Irish Catholic and conflict-driven, sparing her youngest of three daughters, Anna, the least. “I never wanted you,” she once screamed. “You’ve been a trial to me since the day you were born.” (The quarrel was over 11-year-old Anna’s wish to see a Jean Harlow movie.)
Her mother was eventually institutionalized. Ms. Jackson often found solace in the movies and was prone to imitating stars from Charles Laughton to Shirley Temple. She recalled that her oldest sister, Katherine, was “both mentor and stage mother” to the younger siblings, comforting them with stories and directing them in neighborhood talent shows.
At 17, Ms. Jackson arrived in Greenwich Village to study under Sanford Meisner, an acting coach at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and later Lee Strasberg, an advocate of the soul-scouring “Method” technique. She befriended a gaggle of struggling actors, among them Marlon Brando, Lee Grant and Eli Wallach.
She married Wallach in 1948, and they toiled on and off Broadway over the next few years, appearing in a string of what she called “smash flops,” terrifically reviewed productions to which audiences gave a commercial pass.
Wallach launched his film career soon after winning a Tony in Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo” (1951). His co-star in “The Misfits” (1961), Marilyn Monroe, sometimes babysat for the Wallachs’s children.
Eli Wallach, who received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, died in 2014. Survivors include three children, Peter Wallach of Doylestown, Pa., and Roberta and Katherine Wallach, both of Manhattan; a sister; three grandsons; and a great-grandson.
Ms. Jackson and her husband acknowledged being temperamental egotists — actors, after all — and the efforts it took to make the marriage and career work.
“He’d never give you a compliment for a long, long time,” Ms. Jackson told an interviewer in 1963.
“Now I give you compliments,” Wallach said.
“Oh, sure,” Ms. Jackson replied. “I say, ‘I was wonderful, wasn’t I?’ And he says, ‘Yes.’ I give him the answers I want to hear.”