Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The 86-Year Old Sitcom Star

The other night, I couldn't sleep.  So I turned on an old movie that I thought would lull me off to Dreamland.  Quite the opposite.  I found a Sidney Lumet movie starring Sean Connery, Martin Balsam and a boyish-faced new actor named Christopher Walken.  1971's THE ANDERSON TAPES is a Manhattan crime story that woke me right up thanks to the famed Sidney Lumet directorial excellence.  As I was watching, there's one scene -- of many -- that I love.  The masked gang pulling off the high-tone apartment building heist enters the apartment of two old ladies.  Two bickering old ladies.  The crustier one breaks me up laughing because she's not in the least intimated by the gang.  In fact, she rats out that her roommate is 73 and secretly reads erotica.  Sidney Lumet's 1971 film, THE ANDERSON TAPES, reminded me of something that an acting coach said to our class about ten years ago:  "You never know how old you'll be when your big break finally comes."  This stage and screen veteran was proof of that quote.
Let me explain.  The senior lady who like to read erotica was played by Margaret Hamilton, veteran screen character actress who was famous for playing the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ.  The shorter, white-haired lady was actress Judith Lowry.

Judith Lowry had a look that just popped onscreen, whether she had dialogue or not.  Your eye just went to her.  With that "old lady" look, she was often a bit player who worked for some celebrated directors:  Ida Lupino in THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966), William Friedkin in THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKEY'S (1968), Bob Fosse in SWEET CHARITY (1969) and she had a nice small role as Nanny Annie in the film version of the play THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS (1972) starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman.

Then came 1975.  One of the popular spin-offs from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was PHYLLIS starring Cloris Leachman as the former landlady to Mary Richards.  Phyllis Lindstrom suddenly became a widow and has moved in with relatives in San Francisco.  Judith Lowry was cast as "Mother Dexter," a fun and feisty old lady.

Judith Lowry became one of the breakout characters of that spin-off sitcom.  She was fabulous.  Viewers loved her so much that she went from a recurring to permanent character during the run of the show.  Also, the widow "Mother Dexter" marries her 92-year old boyfriend in one memorable episode.
Judith Lowry passed away during the run of PHYLLIS.  She died a sitcom star in 1976 -- age age 86.

"You never know how old you'll be when your big break finally comes."

If you've never seen Lumet's THE ANDERSON TAPES, it's worth a look.
It's a crime caper drama about surveillance that came out during the Watergate scandal.  The great cast includes comedian/actor Alan King, Dyan Cannon and Ralph Meeker.

This movie marks Christopher Walken's film debut.

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