Ann Wedgeworth, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress better remembered for her extensive TV portfolio, including a brief turn as a flirty divorcée on the hit sitcom “Three’s Company” and her featured role on the Burt Reynolds series “Evening Shade,” died Nov. 16 in New York. She was 83.
A daughter, actress Dianna Martin, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.
Ms. Wedgeworth, a Texas native, once told the New York Times that she was so naturally shy and intimidated by strangers that she sometimes “cries and screams” at the notion of attending a cocktail party.
Nevertheless, her buxom good looks, twangy accent and trademark piles of auburn hair led to her being typecast as “happy hookers” and other dim but appealing women of easy virtue on stage and screen, including the 1973 films “Bang the Drum Slowly” starring Robert De Niro and “Scarecrow” with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino.
She made her Broadway debut in the 1958 comedy “Make a Million” and continued to take supporting roles on stage for decades, including James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” in 1964 and Herb Gardner’s “Thieves” in 1974. (She also appeared in the 1977 film version of the Gardner play.)
Ms. Wedgeworth won the 1978 Tony for best featured actress in a play for Neil Simon’s comedy “Chapter Two.” She played a soap opera actress hopelessly bored by her marriage.
Jack Kroll, a Newsweek arts critic, wrote that Ms. Wedgeworth was “better than perfect. She moves like Isadora Duncan, has the comic timing of Jack Benny, the forlorn sweetness of Marilyn Monroe, the wise innocence of Judy Holliday.”
Ms. Wedgeworth told the Times that her role in “Chapter Two” — she called it “very hip, very wisecracking” — was not a natural fit and that even she was shocked when Simon greenlighted her.
“After I got the part, I decided, to hell with it,” she said. “I’m going to go in there and not play the character as written. I’ll make it my own. And somehow, it worked.”
It was a bitter disappointment when Valerie Harper, then a TV star, beat out Ms. Wedgeworth for the 1979 film version of “Chapter Two.” Her role on “Three’s Company” was also a source of anguish. She played Lana Shields, an older woman with her eyes set on her young neighbor Jack, played by John Ritter.
Ms. Wedgeworth said that the producers wrote her out of the show without warning after nine episodes and that she never was able to get a good answer about why. “Suddenly everyone was very cold to me,” she told People magazine.
She remained a presence in off-Broadway theater, notably as a neurotic mother in Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” (1985). In Hollywood, she played mothers to Jessica Lange as singer Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams” (1985) and to Sissy Spacek in “Hard Promises” (1991).
She continued to tally TV credits, including a key supporting role on the popular CBS series “Evening Shade” from 1990 to 1994 as a small town Arkansas doctor’s eccentric wife. Charles Durning played her husband.
Elizabeth Ann Wedgeworth was born in Abilene, Tex., on Jan. 21, 1934. She was 2 when her mother died, and she was raised by her father, a schools superintendent. After drama studies at a Texas college, she moved to New York in the mid-1950s with her first husband, actor Rip Torn. They divorced in 1961.
“We were too mean to live together,” she told People. “He’s moody.”
In 1970, Ms. Wedgeworth married acting teacher Ernest Martin. Besides her husband, survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, actress Danae Torn; a daughter from her second marriage, Dianna Martin; and two stepsons, Michael Martin and Greg Martin.
In a bumpy career that included what she called a “dreary and horrible” six years in soap operas such as “Another World,” she told People that she often took comfort in the occult during moments of depression.
“A voice coming out of another world talked to me when I was sound asleep,” she told the magazine. “It said, ‘Ann, Ann, you can get up.’ I thought, ‘No, I can’t.’ But it came back and said, ‘Yes, you have to.’ ”