Jill Clayburgh Dies aged 66
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Jill Clayburgh Dies aged 66

Lakeville : MN : USA | Nov 05, 2010 at 7:34 PM PDT
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Jill Clayburgh, an Oscar-nominated actress known for portraying strong, independent women, died on Friday at her home in Lakeville, Conn. She was 66.

The cause was chronic leukemia, with which she had lived for 21 years, her husband, the playwright David Rabe, said.

Ms. Clayburgh, who began her career in films and on Broadway in the late 1960s, was among the first generation of young actresses — including Ellen Burstyn, Carrie Snodgress and Marsha Mason — who regularly portrayed characters sprung from the new feminist ethos: smart, capable and gritty, sometimes neurotic, but no less glamorous for all that.

“I guess people look at me and they think I’m a ladylike character,” Ms. Clayburgh told The New York Times in 1982. “But it’s not what I do best. I do best with characters who are coming apart at the seams.”

She was known in particular for her starring role in “An Unmarried Woman” (1978), directed by Paul Mazursky. For her performance as Erica, a New Yorker who must right herself after her husband leaves her for another woman, Ms. Clayburgh was nominated for an Academy Award. (The best-actress Oscar that year went to Jane Fonda in “Coming Home.”)

Reviewing “An Unmarried Woman” in The Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “Miss Clayburgh is nothing less than extraordinary in what is the performance of the year to date. In her we see intelligence battling feeling — reason backed against the wall by pushy needs.”

Ms. Clayburgh also received an Oscar nomination for “Starting Over” (1979), directed by Alan J. Pakula. She played Marilyn Holmberg, a teacher who embarks on a relationship with Phil, a newly divorced man played by Burt Reynolds.

Reviewing that film in The Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Miss Clayburgh delivers a particularly sharp characterization that’s letter-perfect during the first part of the story.” She added, “Her Marilyn is all wrong for Phil — that’s what makes their affair so unexpectedly touching and gives the story so much life.”

Ms. Clayburgh’s other films include “Semi-Tough” (1977), opposite Mr. Reynolds; “It’s My Turn” (1980), opposite Michael Douglas; “First Monday in October” (1981), opposite Walter Matthau, in which she played the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court; and “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can” (1982), based on the memoir by Barbara Gordon about a driven career woman’s addiction to valium.

Jill Clayburgh was born in Manhattan on April 30, 1944, the daughter of Albert, an industrial textile salesman, and Julie Clayburgh. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Sarah Lawrence College in 1966.

Ms. Clayburgh made her Broadway debut in 1968 in “The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson,” a play starring Jack Klugman that ran for five performances. Her other Broadway credits included far more successful shows, among them the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical “The Rothschilds” (1970), opposite Hal Linden; the Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin” (1972), opposite John Rubinstein; and a 1984 revival of Noël Coward’s “Design for Living” that also starred Frank Langella and Raul Julia.

Her last Broadway appearance, in 2006, was in a revival of “Barefoot in the Park” at the Cort Theater, with Tony Roberts and Amanda Peet.

Besides Mr. Rabe, whom she married in 1978, Ms. Clayburgh is survived by a daughter, the actress Lily Rabe, who is starring in the Broadway production of “The Merchant of Venice,” now in previews at the Broadhurst Theater; a son, Michael; a stepson, Jason; and a brother, James.

Her many television credits include guest appearances on “Law & Order,” “The Practice” and “Nip/Tuck,” and a recurring role on “Ally McBeal” as Ally’s mother, Jeannie. Most recently Ms. Clayburgh was a member of the regular cast of “Dirty Sexy Money,” broadcast from 2007 to 2009 on ABC.

Despite her acclaim, Ms. Clayburgh, by all appearances, had a healthy sense of herself. “People think about me, ‘This wonderful lucky woman, she’s got it all,’ ” she told The Times in 1982. “But gee, that’s how I feel about Meryl Streep.”

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