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

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