The character actress Mildred Natwick had a long, distinguished career on Broadway, where she was a fixture for more than four and a half decades, as well as on television and film. Yet despite the near-diva status she ultimately achieved, she usually appeared only in secondary roles, with some notable exceptions. One was her starring role in the musical 70, Girls, 70, for which she earned a Tony® nomination. Another was her part as one of two sisters – her costar was Broadway legend Helen Hayes – in the short-lived television mystery series “The Snoop Sisters.”
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1905, Natwick studied at Bryn Mawr and Bennett College, majoring in drama. In the mid-1920s she joined the University Players in Cape Cod, an informal group of college students and graduates who included such future greats as Joshua Logan, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart.
Natwick got her start on Broadway in 1932, playing Mrs. Noble in Frank McGrath’s play Carry Nation, about the famous temperance crusader. Also in the cast was her University Players colleague Joshua Logan, with whom she would collaborate again on several occasions. Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Natwick would appear every year in at least one Broadway play, including Maxwell Anderson’s The Star-Wagon (1937), starring Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith; E. B. Ginty’s Missouri Legend (1938), with José Ferrer and Karl Malden; and her first Broadway musical, Stars in Your Eyes (1939), playing alongside Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, with staging by Joshua Logan.
Her career as a film actress began in 1940, when she played Freda in The Long Voyage Home, John Ford’s film adaptation of several plays by Eugene O’Neill; John Wayne got top billing. Her other films from the 1940s include The Enchanted Cottage, Yolanda and the Thief (with Fred Astaire), Aldous Huxley’s murder mystery A Woman’s Vengeance (with Charles Boyer, Jessica Tandy, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke), The Kissing Bandit (starring Frank Sinatra), and another team-up between John Ford and John Wayne, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
In the early 1940s Natwick continued as a regular presence on the Great White Way, portraying the eccentric medium Madame Arcati in the original Broadway production of Noël Coward’s delicious farce Blithe Spirit, which played for 657 performances. In 1942 she played alongside Raymond Massey and Burgess Meredith in a revival of Shaw’s Candida and appeared again in that play in 1946, with Marlon Brando and Cedrick Hardwicke. Also in 1946 she played in Synge’s classic The Playboy of the Western World.
She continued to act on Broadway and appear in movies throughout the 1950s, with plenty of television work thrown in for good measure. On the boards her credits include The Grass Harp, The Waltz of the Toreadors (Tony® nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play), The Day the Money Stopped, and The Firstborn. In 1963, she created the part of Mrs. Banks in Neil Simon’s hit romantic comedy Barefoot on the Park, a part she reprised in the 1967 film adaptation, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Natwick came away with an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Her biggest role in musical theater came in 1971, when she starred as Ida Dodd in 70, Girls, 70, a musical by Kander and Ebb about a group of oldsters who steal so they can make enough money to buy their retirement hotel. Also in the cast was veteran stage actor Hans Conried. Natwick earned a Tony® nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, and Columbia issued an original cast recording.
Other film credits include The Trouble with Harry, The Court Jester, Daisy Miller, and Dangerous Liaisons.
Natwick died in 1994 at age eighty-nine.