On this day in 1991, legendary theater actress Colleen Dewhurst passed away from cervical cancer at the age of 67. Anne of Green Gables fans adore her as Marilla Cuthbert, a role that she took in the last few years of her life. But it wasn’t the famous characters she played that meant everything to her, it was acting itself. For Colleen, acting meant “life”.
Here is a closing excerpt from her autobiography in which she encloses important advice for actors, along with a few stunning photographs of the famous leading lady:
What is amazing to me is that you enter a certain profession known as acting, and you declare that this profession is yours. So you move to New York City with thousands of others who feel that they, too, will become rich and famous. If you are serious, you study, you go to classes, but ultimately, you must look for work. Then your life changes. It becomes about auditions, producers’ offices, buying the trades and, of course, trying to find that agent. You are neither rich nor famous. And this can go on for years.
Left: Colleen’s publicity photo prior to A Moon for the Misbegotten. Right: Colleen with Megan Follows in Anne of Green Gables.
I was not an “overnight success.” In order to survive, I did the usual things, all the things that young actors still do today: working as a receptionist, waiting tables, running an elevator, working for the phone company…for what, at that time, seemed like forever. There were so many jobs because when an acting job came up, even if it paid only ten dollars a week in dome dingy loft downtown somewhere, I would quit whatever “civilian” job I had in order to work as an actress. Still, for me it was a very long time from my arrival on the scene until I found what would be steady work in my chosen field: acting.
After he was out of college and had hit the streets of New York himself looking for work as an actor, my son Campbell once said, “Mom, is it true that it took thirteen years before you could earn a living acting?” I replied, “Now you remember all your mother’s old stories?”
But what he asked comes from a fear that must be faced by most young actors. How long? When is the struggle over? The fact is, no matter what degree of success you have, the struggle is never over; only the nature of it changes. What must be remembered, throughout a career, is that you are an actor and that you cannot limit or define yourself by your success or lack of it. I hear so many young people do just that. “I’ll give this five years,” they say, “and if I don’t make it, I’ll go to something else.” With those limitations, most will do just that. Those who stay act simply because they have to. You do not act to become a star or to make a million dollars. God knows, you’ll be grateful if that happens. But the bottom line is this: You act because it is the only thing that means life to you. For some, it is the only thing you can do. Good or bad, up or down, you are in a profession that is the roll of the dice. You throw the dice because you must. So when I began work, I was not tabulating anything or keeping time. I made no deals with myself. I had no grand scheme or overall plan. I did not think, for better or worse, where I was going or in what direction. As in my life up until that time, I just waited for each wave and rode it in whatever direction it seemed to take me.