Ken Tucker
July 14, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Remembering Nancy Marchand

Nancy Marchand, who died of lung cancer on June 18 at age 71, left her final impression as an actress in her portrayal of Livia Soprano, the grasping, neurosis-inducing mobster mother on HBO’s The Sopranos. Performing with a brave rejection of TV-star glitz, Marchand turned Livia’s shapeless housedresses and tattered bedroom slippers into the dowdy costume of a deposed matriarch. During the show’s second season, Marchand made the shortness of breath she suffered work for her as an actor’s tool — using her necessary pauses for dramatic effect, and signaling her character’s angry frustration through her large eyes, which conveyed shifts from maliciousness to wounded pride in a single, watery blink.

”I think the idea is that Livia knows a lot more than she lets on,” Marchand told EW in a 1999 interview, ”and even in her rather frail state, does her best to draw attention to herself, which is what drives her son Tony crazy.”

The evil Italian mama was a far cry from the reserved WASP roles with which Marchand had been most often associated, the best-remembered of which is newspaper publisher Margaret Pynchon in the 1977-82 Ed Asner drama Lou Grant. As Mrs. Pynchon, Marchand deployed a patrician hauteur that served as a formidable foil for Asner’s bullheaded editor, and won four Emmys for portraying the Katharine Graham-like publishing scion.

Born in Buffalo, Marchand did a lot of Manhattan stage work as a young actress, but didn’t seek out a Hollywood career because, she told EW, ”I wasn’t a glamour-puss, and there were more interesting roles for an actress like me in the theater and in live television.” Indeed, she made her first nationwide impact in a live 1953 broadcast of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, playing the plain girlfriend of the equally plain butcher, embodied by Rod Steiger.

Slender, with perfect posture, Marchand began carving out a career in middle-age as an archetypal WASP in plays like A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour, and she was cast as that sort of character regularly, typified by her Lou Grant role. Not until Livia Soprano came along was Marchand able to remind a mass audience of her range.

”We had 100 people come in to read [for the part] but no one came close,” says Sopranos creator David Chase. ”We thought we were in trouble. I started to wonder whether something was wrong with the script. Actresses were reading it way over the top, too much like an Italian mama. [But Marchand] made me laugh. I giggled all the way through the reading. And she did that without playing the comedy. She played it completely straight and it was extremely funny.”

The Sopranos brought Marchand both a Golden Globe award and a different image. ”I love the fact that I don’t have to get all dolled up to play Livia,” she told EW. ”Sometimes I dreaded those business clothes I had to wear all the time on Lou Grant…. At my age and with my health, it’s lovely to have a meaty role like Livia.” Few actors have ever taken a classier bite out of a meaty role than Marchand.

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