Brava, Colleen

updated 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

COLLEEN DEWHURST CREATED MANY MEMORABLE MOMENTS in her four decades as a stage and screen actress. But curiously enough one of the most poignant came in a TV sitcom. In recent years Dewhurst appeared as Candice Bergen's disarming dreadnought of a mother on CBS's Murphy Brown. In one episode, after her mother has ridden roughshod over her for a solid 20 minutes, Murphy is awakened late at night by the scratch and wail of an old phonograph record. Sneaking out to the living room, she catches her mom recapturing her lost youth: swaying about the room to a Billie Holiday record, a rose clenched in her teeth.

That performance, for which she won her third Emmy, was vintage Dewhurst. With her full, chiseled features and a voice like a steel file on granite, Dewhurst, who died of cancer on Aug. 22 at age 67, embodied every modern woman trying to claw a place for herself under a sun owned by men. Yet she also had a downy sweetness about her, as glimpsed in that instant on Murphy Brown. "She's like an Earth Mother," her friend Maureen Stapleton once said, "but in real life she's not to be let out without a keeper. She's a pushover, a pussycat. She's the madonna of the birds with broken wings."

The combination helped make her one of America's most formidable, and most beloved, actresses. "We have suffered the loss of a true spirit, a woman of rare talent and unsurpassed enthusiasm for life and the living," said theater impresario Joseph Papp. "Colleen will be remembered as long as joy is remembered."

Canadian-born, Dewhurst went to New York City in 1946. There she toiled in barren vineyards—as waitress, receptionist, telephone operator—while studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She married fellow student James Vickery in 1947, then spent 10 years doing bit parts and summer stock. Eventually she caught the eye of Papp, who was starting his Shakespeare Festival in Manhattan and offered her the role of Kate in Taming of the Shrew. Two years later, in 1958, she appeared in Jose Quintero's Children of Darkness with another struggling actor, George C. Scott. In less than two years they had divorced their spouses and married.

It proved a volatile union even by show business standards. They had two sons (Alexander, 31, a stage manager and playwright, and Campbell, 30, with whom Dewhurst appeared in the recent Julia Roberts vehicle Dying Young). They divorced in 1965, remarried—and divorced for good in 1972. "I always said we got on much better during the divorces," Dewhurst later reflected. "We make a better brother and sister."

Her blood brother onstage was Jason Robards Jr. Together they carved the definitive modern renditions of Eugene O'Neill, first in the 1973 Broadway revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten, for which Dewhurst won a Tony, and later in Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey into Night. Said Robards last week: "We've lost a part of the human family, not just a great actress. She was a champion of all causes—and a close friend for 45 years who will be dearly missed."

Dewhurst was indeed a relentless crusader. For the past six years she served as president of Actors' Equity, fighting fiercely to support actors with AIDS—and futilely to save Broadway's Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters from developers. She also stirred Broadway controversy by leading the union's fight to bar English actor Jonathan Pryce from playing the Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon. (The union later recanted, and Pryce won a Tony.)

Dewhurst never remarried after Scott but spent her last 16 years on her sprawling farm in South Salem, N.Y., with Ken Marsolais, an independent producer. She maintained close ties with her boys and her two grandchildren, waged her union battles and still managed to do some of her best stage work (Wilderness and Long Day's Journey in 1988). Several years ago she said of her life: "God knows I've made some mistakes, some of them close to tragedies, but then I suppose I'm greedy. I wanted it all."

Miraculously, she almost got it.

ANN GUERIN in New York City

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