Obituary: Peggy Cass

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The Independent Culture
THE GRAVEL-VOICED character actress Peggy Cass won a Tony award for her portrayal of Miss Gooch, the adenoidal, frumpy secretary who in taking her flamboyant employer's advice to "live a little" becomes an unmarried mother in the hit comedy Auntie Mame (1957).

When she recreated her hilarious performance in the film version of the play she received an Oscar nomination, and though she appeared in other plays, several films, and enjoyed a prolific career as a panellist on television quiz shows, it is for the role of Gooch that she will be most fondly remembered.

Born in Boston in 1924, she attended the Cambridge Latin School, spending three years in their drama club without winning a single speaking role.

Determined to become an actress, she moved to New York, where she worked as a typist, telephone operator and model while studying acting with Uta Hagen and Mira Rostova. Her first professional work in the theatre came when she was cast in a USO production of The Doughgirls which toured the South Pacific during the closing days of the Second World War in 1945. In 1947 she understudied Jan Sterling as Billie Dawn in the touring production of Born Yesterday, taking over the role in Chicago, and the following year she made her Broadway debut succeeding Ann Thomas as Maisie in Burlesque.

The producer George Abbott then cast her in his revue Touch and Go (1949) and other roles included a season of Shakespeare at the New York City Center (including Bianca in Othello and Mistress Quickly in Henry IV Part 2) before she was given the part with which she would become identified. "I was in Dallas doing another show when my agent called me and said I had to come to New York to read for Auntie Mame," she recalled:

I was hell-bent to go to California to be in movies, but he wanted me to read for the part of the Irish maid, Nora Muldoon. After I read for the part, they just said "Thank you" but as I was about to leave there was a buzz from the audience and Rosalind Russell, who was to star in the show, said, "Let her read for the understudy of Gooch." I expected to read with the stage manager, which had been the procedure, but Russell herself came on stage to read with me.

The star suggested they read Act 2, Scene 6 in which Mame transforms Gooch from a mousy secretary into a sophisticated society woman. Pointing to Gooch's shoes, she asks, "What do you call those things?" Gooch replies, "Orthopaedic Oxfords", to which Mame responds, "Kick 'em off!" Cass kicked so high that the shoes flew into the wings. Russell exclaimed, "That's my Gooch!" "So I got the part," said Cass. "I always felt a little guilty because another actress had been told that she had it. But, after I read, they didn't sign her contract."

The play was a smash hit and a personal triumph for Russell but Cass later commented on the star's generosity:

Rosalind never once tried to tone me down. She was always trying to build me up. She said that by the time I came on, which was the beginning of the second act, the audience

had seen so much of her, she had carried so much of the show, that they were damn glad to see me. They say that some stars cut you down and reduce your part if you get too much attention. I never had that experience with Roz. She was absolutely out for the good of the play.

Cass was one of three supporting players in the show who went to Hollywood to recreate their parts in the 1958 film version. She had earlier made her screen debut playing Aldo Ray's sister in George Cukor's The Marrying Kind (1952). Later films included If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium (1969) and a charming low-budget Irish comedy, Paddy (1970), in which she played an American tourist in Dublin who has an affair with one of the locals (Milo O'Shea).

Other stage roles included the role of the meddling telephonist Ella in Bells Are Ringing (in Dallas), the revue A Thurber Carnival (1960) on Broadway and the comedy Once a Catholic (1979). She appeared in several productions of the popular musical Nunsense, playing the salty Mother Superior.

But her major career after Auntie Mame was to be on television, where her brash repartee and encyclopaedic mind made her a staple of panel games and quiz shows - at one point she was appearing as often as seven times a week, and she was a regular panellist for over 10 years on the show To Tell The Truth, in which the panel are confronted by two plausible impostors and one truth-teller, all offering the same implausible story. "I'm an actress," Cass told one interviewer. "I've studied drama, literature, Life! But, since I went on The Jack Paar Show, they just let me talk."

Last September Cass reprised her role of Agnes Gooch in a one-performance benefit reading of Auntie Mame in New York with the drag performer Charles Busch as Mame. Cass received an ovation for her performance, one of the audience commenting afterwards, "It was as if time had stood still."

Mary Margaret Cass, actress: born Boston, Massachusetts 21 May 1924; married first Carl Fischer, second Eugene Feeney; died New York 8 March 1999.