Updated: 10:07 a.m. ET Friday
Elaine Stritch, the Broadway musical theater actress who was best known for her salty personality and and star power even into old age, died Thursday in Birmingham, Mich., at 89.
She’s one of only stage actresses who worked consistently from the golden age of American theater through to the present. She first starred in a 1952 revival of “Pal Joey,” then a 1955 production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” and then played Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” from 1962-1964. But she got her big break in 1970, in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” She became known as one of the best actresses to interpret Sondheim’s work, which she did again in 2009 in “A Little Night Music.”
Stritch was a theater actress first and foremost, but she also had a successful movie and television career. She most recently played Jack Donaghy’s mother Colleen on 30 Rock when she was already in her 80s, but also made two movies with Woody Allen (September, in 1987 and Small Time Crooks in 2000) over a career that spanned six decades.
“Elaine was a ‘tough old bird’ but I suspect she may have been a ‘tough old bird’ since birth,” 30 Rock creator Tina Fey tells TIME. “I loved her voice, her timing, her stories and her natural elegance. One day she was wearing a beautiful butterfly cocktail ring and when I admired it, she gave it to me on the spot– like an Arab sheik in black pantyhose. I feel very lucky to have worked with her as much as I did.”
The stage was her true home, however– whether it was musicals, dramatic plays, or one-women shows, Stritch’s biggest fans wanted to see her in person.
“I remember seeing Elaine in the touring company of Call Me Madam, in Los Angeles,” six-time Emmy winner Carol Burnett tells TIME. “I was a hopeful musical comedy ‘wannabe,’ still in high school, and she bowled me over. Many years later, in New York, I got to know her and even though our paths didn’t cross as often as I would’ve liked, we would pick up where we left off as if time had never passed. I loved her because she never censored herself when it came to expressing her (often hilarious) opinions. On stage, her comedic timing was impeccable, and as far as selling a song goes, I don’t think she could’ve been topped. One more observation: She had great gams.”
Perhaps her greatest role was playing herself, as the caustic grand dame of the Broadway theater. She won her last Tony for a one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty”, in which she sang, danced and told stories to packed houses.
“I’m a funny age — funny ha-ha, funny peculiar, funny, funny. I could hardly open my mouth on the stage without getting a laugh,” she told the New York Times in January. “That’s a pretty sensational thing to brag about, but it’s also dangerous. I had a great time, and I’m very glad it’s over. Oh, my God, it’s hard. Entertaining is hard.”
Here’s a trailer for a documentary about Stritch’s life released earlier this year: