Suzanne Pleshette: Actress whose roles included being pecked to death in Hitchcock's 'The Birds'

Suzanne Pleshette, actress: born New York 31 January 1937; married 1964 Troy Donahue (marriage dissolved 1964), 1968 Tom Gallagher (died 2000), 2001 Tom Poston (died 2007); died Los Angeles 19 January 2008

In the early 1960s, the hazel-eyed and husky-voiced brunette actress Suzanne Pleshette seemed on the brink of major stardom. She played leading lady to Troy Donahue in Rome Adventure (1962), and Tony Curtis in 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963), but her screen roles, with the exception of her part as a love-spurned schoolteacher pecked to death in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), rarely equalled her talent.

Four years after Rome Adventure, her film career was virtually over, and she became a prominent figure on television. Apart from starring in countless TV movies and series episodes, she had a gift for repartee and an earthy wit that made her a sought-after chat-show guest. On the panel game Hollywood Squares, she is remembered for being asked, "Governor Reagan has recently been deluged with a tremendous amount of requests to do one particular thing. What is it?" Pleshette immediately answered, "Retire". Later she was to become famous in the US for her portrayal of Bob Newhart's bubble-headed but bright and caring wife in the long-running situation comedy The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78).

Born in Brooklyn in 1937, she was the only child of a ballerina, Geraldine Rivers (*ée Kaplan), and Eugene Pleshette, stage manager of the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn during the big band era. Pleshette later described herself as "weaned on show business". She studied at Manhattan's High School of the Performing Arts from an early age and after graduation, briefly attended Syracuse University, then Finch College, before spending two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, where she was coached by Sanford Meisner.

She made her Broadway début playing a small role in the hit drama Compulsion (1957), in which Dean Stockwell and Roddy McDowall starred as characters based on the real-life killers Leopold and Loeb. Pleshette also understudied Ina Balin as Ruth Goldenberg, and near the end of the run she took over the role, bringing her to the attention of the comedian Jerry Lewis, who signed her to appear with him in The Geisha Boy (1958).

Pleshette returned to Broadway in S.N. Behrman's semi-autobiographical play about growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Massachusetts, The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958). After its modest run of 84 performances, Pleshette was asked to succeed Anne Bancroft in William Gibson's two-character play Two for the Seesaw (1959). Later the same year she starred with Tom Poston and Constance Ford in Lorenzo Semple Jnr's Golden Fleecing, a comedy set in Venice. The New York Times labelled her performance "stunning", praising her "nice sense of comic adventure". In 1961 she again took over from Bancroft, in the role of Annie Sullivan, resolute teacher of deaf mute Helen Keller (Patty Duke), in William Gibson's The Miracle Worker.

She returned to the screen in Delmer Daves' 1962 film Rome Adventure (released as Lovers Must Learn in the UK), in which she played a librarian, sacked for stocking a banned book, who goes to Rome to find love, ultimately forsaking sophisticated Rossano Brazzi and winning the callow all-American Troy Donahue away from Angie Dickinson. It did only moderately well, but has since gained a reputation as enjoyable tosh. Pleshette and her co-star Donahue were married in 1964, but she divorced him nine months later. "Troy was a sweet, good man," she later said. "We just were never destined to be married. We just didn't have the same values. But I'm not bitter. He taught me how to laugh."

She had displayed her flair for comedy acting in Norman Jewison's 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963), based on Damon Runyon's short story Little Miss Marker, in which she persuades nightclub owner Tony Curtis, who has found himself taking care of an orphan, that he should also have a new wife.

In 1963 Pleshette had her most memorable film role, as the warm-hearted schoolteacher in The Birds who suffers unrequited love and sacrifices herself to save a pupil from a lethal attack. The same year she starred in Wall of Noise, a race-track melodrama in which she was a gambler's wife who has her eye on a young trainer (Ty Hardin). It was another of several mediocre melodramas in which Pleshette appeared, and critics regularly pointed out how her talent surpassed her vehicles.

In Fate is the Hunter (1964) she was an air stewardess, sole survivor of a crash, who helps investigator Glenn Ford discover the cause of the disaster, and in Youngblood Hawke (1964), she was a publisher's editor who nurtures a truck-driver into a best-selling novelist.

Pleshette was given top billing over Bradford Dillman and Ben Gazzara in A Rage to Live (1965), in which she was a wealthy nymphomaniac, but the clumsy adaptation of John O'Hara's novel was arguably the nadir of her screen career. She and Dean Jones were a charming pair in the Disney production The Ugly Dachshund (1966), as owners of a Great Dane who thinks he is a dachshund, but Pleshette was accused of overacting her role of a Native American in Nevada Smith (1966), which starred Steve McQueen. She fared better as one of three women encountered by an amnesiac as he tries to find his identity in the offbeat Mister Buddwing (1966).

Pleshette's television career had started in 1957, when she appeared in an episode of the short-lived adventure series Harbourmaster, and she acted in many other series, including Have Gun, Will Travel, Route 66, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Naked City. She received the first of four Emmy nominations for an episode of Dr Kildare with Richard Chamberlain.

When she married her second husband, Tom Gallagher, an oilman, in 1968, she retired from acting, but she recounted that later her husband told her, "You're getting awfully boring. Get back to work." She had always been noted as a talker (Jerry Lewis had dubbed her "Big Mouth"), and a reporter once called her "an earthy dame, an Auntie Mame who isn't afraid to tell a dirty story," so she asked her agent to get her a booking on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

She proved an instant hit, and made several appearances over the next few years. The comedian Bob Newhart was a guest on one, which was seen by David Davis and Lorenzo Music, who were writing a new comedy series for Newhart and realised that Pleshette would be just right to play his wife Emily. The Bob Newhart Show ran from 1972 to 1978, winning Pleshette two Emmy nominations for her portrayal of what the New York Times critic Frank Rich called "the sensible but woolly wife".

In 1990 she was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the title role in Leona Helmsley – The Queen of Mean, and recently she played the estranged mother of Karen (Megan Mullally) in Will and Grace.

Tom Vallance

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm it was a 'minor disturbance' and no-one was arrested

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf plays a World War II soldier in forthcoming drama Fury
films

Eccentric Fury star, 28, reveals he is 'not a really confident actor'

Life and Style
Time and Oak have developed a product that allows drinkers to customise the flavour and improve the quality of cheaper whiskey
food + drink

Sport
football

Peter Biaksangzuala died from his injuries in hospital on Sunday

Life and Style
The final 12 acts will be facing Simon Cowell, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Mel B and Louis Walsh tonight
fashion

The X Factor's judges colourful outfit was mocked by Simon Cowell

News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Senior Change Engineer (Windows, Linux, VMWare) - London £35k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past