Slim, pixie-like, two-time Tony Award winner Tammy Grimes who put on marvelously quirky Cowardesque airs and captivated audiences with her inimitably throaty, raspy voice was actually not British but born in Lynn, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1934, the daughter of Eola Willard (née Niles), a naturalist and spiritualist, and Luther Nichols Grimes, an innkeeper, country-club manager, and farmer. She attended the all-girls Beaver Country Day School in nearby Chestnut Hill and later received entry at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, before relocating to New York for professional acting purposes.
Grimes studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and made her NY debut there in “Jonah and the Whale” in 1955. Broadway offers came shortly after, first as a standby for Kim Stanley as Cherie in “Bus Stop” in June 1955. In 1956, she appeared in the off-Broadway production “The Littlest Revue,” performed in a cross-country tour of “The Lark,” made an Obie-winning appearance in the off-Broadway play “Clerambard,” and in 1959 nabbed the lead role in Noël Coward’s play “Look After Lulu!” on Broadway after the renowned playwright discovered her distinctive style of singing at Julius Monk’s Downstairs at the Upstairs nightclub in New York. She won a Theatre World Award for that. She later was guest star at the New York City Opera in a revival of “The Cradle will Rock,” recreating the role of Moll. On the classical side, Tammy starred with the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut, as Mistress Quickly in “Henry IV”, and Mopsa in ‘The Winter’s Tale”.
Earning the role of the indomitable, rags-to-riches, Titanic-surviving Molly Brown in the 1960 musical comedy “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, Grimes won a Tony Award as “Best Featured Actress in a Musical” (due to below the title rules at the time). She followed this with the 1963 play “Rattle of a Simple Man” in 1963. On TV she appeared twice on the popular series “Route 66” and is fondly remembered for her performance in four TV specials: “Four for Tonight” with Cyril Ritchard, Beatrice Lillie and Tony Randall; “Hollywood Sings” with Eddie Albert; “The Datchet Diamonds” with Rex Harrison, and Play of the Week: Archy and Mehitabel (1960) with Eddie Bracken.
Grimes was originally offered the part of Samantha Stevens in the sitcom Bewitched (1964) but was released from her contract when friend Noël Coward asked her to star on Broadway as Elvira in “High Spirits”, a musical directed by Coward himself and based on his own comedic play, “Blithe Spirit”. The role of Samantha in Bewitched (1964) went to Elizabeth Montgomery and the series was a smash hit.
1966-67 were tepid years for the actress. After “Bewitched”, Grimes finally received her own ABC television series, The Tammy Grimes Show (1966), playing a wealthy heiress but the show was not well-received and dropped quickly, making it one of the shortest series shown in TV history. That same year she was featured in her first film, Three Bites of the Apple (1967), a diverting comedy starring British actor David McCallum and Italian actress Sylva Koscina. The film helped showcase Grimes’s quirky talents, but it made no impression on the public and pretty much put the bite on a leading lady career. Later she was sporadically and sometimes bizarrely featured into such films as Play It As It Lays (1972), Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978), The Runner Stumbles (1979), America (1986), Mr. North (1988), Slaves of New York (1989), A Modern Affair (1995), and High Art (1998).
Grimes became the toast of New York when she appeared in a revival of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” as “Amanda”, winning her second Tony Award, this time for “Best Actress”. During her career, she also spent several seasons at the Stratford Festival in Canada. In addition to night clubs, she has also recorded several albums of songs, recited poetry, and hosted CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
In 2003, Grimes was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and later that year was invited by The Noel Coward Society (she later became its vice president) to be the first celebrity to lay flowers on the statue of Sir Coward at The Gershwin Theatre in Manhattan to celebrate the playwright’s 104th birthday. In 2007, the septuagenarian returned to the cabaret stage in a critically acclaimed one-woman show at the Plush Room, “An Evening with Miss Tammy Grimes”.
Grimes was married three times. First to actor Christopher Plummer in August 1956, by whom she had actress Amanda Plummer. The couple were divorced in 1960. Her second husband was actor Jeremy Slate, whose marriage in 1966 lasted but a year. Her 1971 union to Canadian composer Richard Jameson Bell, was a great success and lasted until his death in 2005.
Tammy Grimes died on October 30, 2016, aged 82, in Englewood, New Jersey, from undisclosed causes. She was survived by her brother, Luther Nichols “Nick” Grimes Jr., and her daughter, actress Amanda Plummer.
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