Today would have been the 100th birthday of beloved character actress Elizabeth Wilson, though she passed away back in 2015.
In spite of a jaw dropping resume of parts in classic Hollywood movies I’m pretty sure I first knew her from the short-lived TV sit-com Doc (1975-76) starring Barnard Hughes, as I was about ten when this show aired. Wilson didn’t do tons of TV; like Hughes, she was a respected stage actress. Perhaps the presence of Hughes and the success of other stage stars in the format (like Bea Arthur on Maude) were inducements to give it a whirl.
If you don’t know her by name, certainly you know her face. I can, with very little inducement, go into raptures over her. She makes an interesting study as to what makes a character actor vs. a lead. Wilson was graceful, lovely, poised, and very pleasant to look at, to me at any rate. I can’t think of anyone who has a nicer smile. She’s not “sexy” or “innocent” though, and though it would be an exaggeration to call her “plain”, she somehow is not the ingenue or leading lady type. She is funny and smart, and those make her appealing. But she is also formal, distant, correct, and a dozen other WASP things that may alienate some, but which are like catnip to others, at least when leavened with funny and smart. Sometimes her characters were terrible: busybodies and know-it-all meddlers, or castrating suburban wives and mothers, but honestly, I never found it possible to dislike HER. (Also, at 5’10”, she was a little on the tall side for an actress. Not gargantuan, but that can often consign women to character roles, especially in an industry where plenty of leading men are 5’4″ and have to stand on apple boxes).
The original production of Picnic (1953) was the first of 18 Broadway parts she played, which also included the original production of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (1972) and the 1996 revival of Albee’s A Delicate Balance (which I saw)! The screen version of Picnic (1955) was her first film, and she had a small part in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), but it was in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) that Hollywood finally figured out how to employ her, resulting in her being cast in a long list of modern movie classics.
It may be that, with his Broadway background, Nichols knew what Wilson was capable of and so cast her opposite William Daniels as Dustin Hoffman’s conventional, materialistic parents. Later, he also cast her in The Day of the Dolphin (1973), and, to bring up other Broadway connections, she was also in the screen adaptations of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders (1971) and Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975). (She had earlier understudied in the original stage production of Plaza Suite). Wilson was also in Jenny (1970) with Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas, Frank Perry’s Man on a Swing (1974), The Happy Hooker (1975), 9 to 5 (1980), The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Grace Quigley (1984), The Believers (1987), Regarding Henry (1991), The Addams Family (1991), Quiz Show (1994), and Hyde Park on Hudson (2012, in which she played, SO appropriately, FDR’s mother). (The daughter of a comfortably well-off family from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wilson was a lifelong liberal Democrat).
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