Irene Worth, CBE (June 23, 1916 – March 9, 2002) was an American stage and screen actress who became one of the leading stars of the British and American theatre. She pronounced her given name with three syllables: "I-REE-nee".
Worth made her Broadway debut in 1943, joined the Old Vic company in 1951 and the RSC in 1962. She won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress for the 1958 film Orders to Kill. Her other film appearances included Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Deathtrap (1982) A three-time Tony Award winner, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Tiny Alice in 1965 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1976, and won the 1991 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Lost in Yonkers, a role she reprised in the 1993 film version. One of her final stage performances was opposite Paul Scofield in the 2001 production of I Take Your Hand in Mine at the Almeida Theatre in London.
Harriet Elizabeth Abrams was born in Fairbury, Nebraska to a Mennonite family. Her parents, Agnes Thiessen and Henry Abrams, were educators. They moved from Nebraska to California in 1920. She was educated at Newport Harbor High School, Newport Beach, California, Santa Ana Junior College, Santa Ana, California and UCLA.
She joined the Old Vic company in 1951, worked with Tyrone Guthrie and there played Desdemona, Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Portia in The Merchant of Venice and her first Lady Macbeth. The company went off to South Africa with Worth as one of the leading ladies.
In 1953, she joined the fledgling Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario for its inaugural season. There she was the principal leading lady, performing under an enormous tent with Alec Guinness in All's Well That Ends Well and Richard III. "Binkie" Beaumont brought her back to London in N. C. Hunter's "Chekhovian" drama, A Day by the Sea, with a cast that included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. She joined the Midland Theatre Company in Coventry for Ugo Betti's The Queen and the Rebels. Her transformation from "a rejected slut cowering at her lover's feet into a redemption of regal poise" ensured a transfer to London, where Kenneth Tynan wrote of her technique: "It is grandiose, heartfelt, marvellously controlled, clear as crystal and totally unmoving."
In the 1950s, Worth demonstrated her exceptional versatility by playing in the farce Hotel Paradiso in London with Alec Guinness, high tragedy in the title role of Schiller's Mary Stuart, co-starring Eva Le Gallienne; and on Broadway and Shakespearean comedy in As You Like It at Stratford, Ontario. In Ivor Brown's play William's Other Anne she played Shakespeare's first girlfriend Anne Whateley opposite John Gregson as Shakespeare. She also made a number of well-regarded appearances in British films of the period, most notably her powerful performance as a French Resistance agent in Anthony Asquith's 1958 wartime espionage drama Orders to Kill, which earned her the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1962, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, and it was there that she gave some of her greatest performances. She was Goneril to Paul Scofield's Lear in Peter Brook's acclaimed King Lear, the first of many collaborations with Brook. She recreated her implacable Goneril in the stark, black-and-white film version of this production. She repeated her Lady Macbeth and appeared again for Brook in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists. Playing an asylum superintendent, she showed the darker side of her acting. She then went to New York in 1965 for the opening of Edward Albee's enigmatic Tiny Alice, in which she co-starred with John Gielgud and which won her the first of her three Tony Awards.
She returned to the RSC at the Aldwych to repeat her role. She worked with Peter Brook in Paris and also toured Iran with Orghast, Brook's attempt to develop an international theatre language. She joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1968 to play Jocasta in Peter Brook's production of Seneca's Oedipus, again opposite Gielgud. She was proud to have been in Noël Coward's last play Suite in Three Keys, in which he himself made his last appearance on stage. In 1974 she appeared in three thematically-linked plays at the Greenwich Theatre directed by Jonathan Miller under the umbrella title of Family Romances and using the same actors for each play. Worth took the roles of Gertrude in Hamlet, Madame Arkadina in Chekhov's The Seagull, and Mrs Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts.
Worth spent most of the 1970s in North America. She was an acclaimed Hedda Gabler at Stratford, Ontario, a role she considered one of her most satisfying achievements and which prompted Walter Kerr to write, in The New York Times, "Miss Worth is just possibly the best actress in the world."
She played Princess Kosmonopolis in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Christopher Walken, which brought her a second Tony Award. She was Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, for which she received another Tony nomination and which featured Raúl Juliá, Mary Beth Hurt and Meryl Streep, whose career was in its beginning stages. Towards the end of the decade she played Winnie, in Beckett's Happy Days.
Worth also appeared in the premiere of another Albee play, The Lady from Dubuque, which closed after twelve performances; a revival of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman; Toys in the Attic by Lillian Hellman; and The Golden Age by A. R. Gurney.
She starred as the goddess Athena in The National Radio Theater's 1981 Peabody Award-winning radio drama of The Odyssey of Homer. On screen in 1982, Worth co-starred with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in the film version of a Broadway murder mystery, Deathtrap, playing a psychic.
In 1984, Peter Hall invited her to return to the National Theatre to play Volumnia in Coriolanus, with Ian McKellen in the title role. The impresario Joseph Papp persuaded her to repeat Volumnia off-Broadway in a production by Steven Berkoff, when she was once again partnered by Christopher Walken as Coriolanus. She was also seen in David Hare's The Bay at Nice (National, 1987) and in Chère Maître (New York, 1998 and Almeida, London 1999), compiled by Peter Eyre from the letters of George Sand and Gustave Flaubert.
In 1991, she won a third Tony for her performance as the tough-as-nails Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, and later appeared in the film version along with Richard Dreyfuss and Mercedes Ruehl.
In 1999, she appeared in the film Onegin. As she was about to begin preview performances in a Broadway revival of Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon, Worth had a stroke and never appeared in the production. She continued to act, however, right up until September 2001, when one of her last appearances was with Paul Scofield at the Almeida Theatre in the two-handed play, I Take Your Hand in Mine, by Carol Rocamora based on the love letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper.
During the mid-1960s in New York, Worth and Gielgud had collaborated in a series of dramatic readings, first from T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell and then from Shakespeare. It was a form of theatre at which she became more adept as she grew older, drawing from Virginia Woolf, Ivan Turgenev and Noël Coward among others. She referred to them as "her recitals". In the mid-1990s, she devised and performed a two-hour monologue, Portrait of Edith Wharton, based on Wharton's life and writings. Using no props, costumes or sets, she created characters entirely through vocal means.
She died in 2002 following a second stroke in New York's Roosevelt Hospital, at the age of 85. At her memorial service, held at the Public Theater in New York City, speakers included Edward Albee, Christopher Walken, Mercedes Ruehl, Meryl Streep and Alan Rickman. There was also music performed by flutist Paula Robison and pianist Horacio Gutiérrez.