Estelle Winwood: A Welcome Late Arrival

Just a few words to hopefully illuminate the memory of Estelle Winwood (1883-1984 — yes she was 101 when she died). Most of us know her chiefly from when she was already ANCIENT! She is the Miss Marple character’s nurse in the wheelchair in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976), her last movie role; she is also one of the old women Zero Mostel romances in The Producers (1967), and Lady Clarinda in Camelot (1967). And she played Aunt Hilda on Batman (1966-67) and Aunt Enchantra on Bewitched!  Generally she had small parts, not commensurate with her earliest stage fame: other movies she’s in include Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), The Misfits (1961, in which she is little better than an extra), a remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1962), Dead Ringer (1964) with Bette Davis, and the 1970 hippie romance Jennie with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda.

The reason Winwood didn’t have much of a screen career was that for a long time she didn’t want one, and by the time she began to pursue one, she had essentially aged out (it’s a cruel business). Originally from Kent, she joined the Liverpool Repertory Company during the First World War and then divided her time pretty evenly between Broadway and the West End. After the 30s, she remained almost entirely in the U.S. She has over 40 Broadway credits, and certainly as many in Britain. Stage credits included revivals of Trelawney of the ‘Wells’, The Admirable Crichton, The Importance of Being Earnest (which she also directed), Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the original productions of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1944-45), and Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot (1948-1950).

During the Jazz Age, she ran with a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead, Eva La Gallienne, Blythe Daly and the Algonquin Roundtable. Like her famous actress friends, and others of their generation like Helen Hayes, and Lunt and Fontanne, Winwood preferred the ancient tradition and prestige (and undoubtedly the rush) of the stage and saw no reason to go and learn a whole new art form (whim film acting very much is). Though she’d appeared in a couple of earlier movies, it was with a television production of Blithe Spirit in 1946 that she began to warm up to acting before the cameras. So we only catch the occasional glimpse of her, and never of her in the full flowering of her talented youth, even in silents. But we do catch a glimpse of how funny she could be. Her last credit was an episode of Quincy, M.E. in 1979.

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