Edie Adams: Actress, singer and comedienne and widow of Ernie Kovacs

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The Independent Online

The actress, singer and comedienne Edie Adams won a Tony Award for her beguiling performance as Daisy Mae in the Broadway musical Li'l Abner, and gave sterling supporting performances in such films as Lover Come Back and The Best Man. But she is probably best remembered for teaming up with Rosalind Russell on Broadway in Wonderful Town – and for her marriage to the comedian Ernie Kovacs, noted for his trademark thick moustache and large cigar, with whom she starred in some acclaimed television shows. After Kovacs was killed in a car crash, she battled rough times to settle her late husband's massive tax bills.

Born Elizabeth Edith Enke in 1925 (some sources give 1927) in Kingston, Philadelphia, she initially hoped for a career in opera, and she trained as a classical singer at the Juillard School of Music before graduating from Columbia School of Drama. In 1950 she won a talent competition as Miss US Television, which led to an appearance (billed as Edith Adams) with Milton Berle on his television show.

The following year she was invited to audition as resident vocalist on a Philadelphia television series, Ernie in Kovacsland, and she recalled later that she knew countless operas but only three pop songs: "I sang them all, and if they'd asked to hear another, I never would have made it." Adams proved an admirable foil for Kovacs' innovative humour and eccentric characterisations, and she stayed with him when, retitled The Ernie Kovacs Show, the series moved to CBS in 1952.

In 1953 she made her Broadway début as Rosalind Russell's sister in the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical hit Wonderful Town, based on the play My Sister Eileen. Adams' fresh blonde beauty was ideal for the role of baby-faced Eileen, who brings out the protective impulse in men, unlike her assured sister Ruth, played by Russell, and she had an appealing solo ballad, "A Little Bit in Love" as well as partnering Russell in the show-stopping "Ohio", in which the sisters express doubts about having left their small-town home for the excitement of New York.

Though the director George Abbott was to describe the show's production period as invoking "more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension, and more screaming than with any other show I was ever involved with," the result had the rare distinction of receiving unanimous raves from New York's seven newspapers, with Robert Coleman (Daily Mirror) writing of Adams, "She can sing, act, dance, and soothe the eyes. She's got everything".

In 1954 Adams and Kovacs eloped to Mexico City, and she returned to Broadway in 1956 to play the winsome Daisy Mae in the musical Li'l Abner, based on Al Capp's satirical comic strip about the citizens of Dogpatch. Adams shared with Peter Palmer (as Abner) the show's major ballad, "Namely You", and won a supporting actress Tony Award for her appealing performance.

In 1957, a year in which both she and Kovacs were nominated for Emmy awards for best performances in a comedy series, Adams played fairy godmother to Julie Andrews in Rodgers and Hammerstein's television musical Cinderella, which was reputedly watched by 107 million people. It was Richard Rodgers' idea to make the godmother a beautiful woman, arguing that since she had magical powers it would make sense, but he had trouble convincing some of the other creative staff. Adams' vivacious portrayal made her duet with Andrews, "Impossible", a highlight of the show.

Adams had her first major film role when cast in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) as the spurned mistress of philandering boss Fred MacMurray. She then had a prime role in arguably the funniest of the comedies co-starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Lover Come Back (1961), as the chorus girl Rebel Davis, who stars in a series of commercials for Hudson's advertising executive.

In 1962, after Adams and Kovacs attended a party at Milton Berle's home, Kovacs left to drive home (Adams was to follow in their second car), but had a fatal crash when his vehicle skidded on the wet street – Adams suggested he was probably lighting one of his constant cigars when he lost control. (Their daughter Mia also died in a car crash, in 1982.) It transpired that Kovacs owed half a million dollars in back taxes, which Adams eventually settled by taking whatever work would pay most, refusing to file for bankruptcy and declining the offer of a benefit concert suggested by friends including Berle, Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon and Dean Martin.

She played the wife of Sid Caesar in the film It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and made a strong impact as Steve McQueen's stripper girlfriend who refuses to lend him money so that his lover can have an abortion, in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and as the wife of an unscrupulous Presidential candidate (Cliff Robertson) in The Best Man (1964). She also appeared in Las Vegas, where Groucho Marx introduced her with the comment, "There are lots of things that Edie Adams won't do, but there's nothing she can't do".

She eventually won a lengthy and bitter battle for the custody of Kovacs' two daughters from his first marriage, and when her debts were paid she began acquiring the rights to Kovacs' television shows to keep his talent alive – many of them had already been destroyed. She married twice more, briefly to the photographer Marty Mills, with whom she had a son, then to the trumpeter Pete Candoli. She continued to make occasional nightclub appearances, and took guest roles in such television series as Fantasy Island and Murder, She Wrote.

Elizabeth Edith Enke (Edie Adams), actress, singer, comedienne: born Kingston, Philadelphia 16 April 1925; married 1954 Ernie Kovacs (died 1962; one daughter), 1964 Marty Mills (one son; marriage dissolved), 1972 Pete Candoli (marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 15 October 2008.

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