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A Granny Who Really Gets Around

by Blake Green

Newsday  November 13, 1991 page II 59

There are actors who won't watch their own films, but Teresa Wright isn't one of them. The reason she'll not be sitting in front of her television set tonight to see herself playing Myra Holcombe, the grandmother in PBS' "Lethal Innocence" (WNET / 13 at 9; WLIW / 21 at 11), is that she'll be doing one of her other granny stints -- this one on Broadway in "On Borrowed Time."

"Oh, I'll get around to it," Wright says of viewing the "American Playhouse" drama. A grandmother in real life as well, the 73-year-old actress, stylish in plaid, was having her mid-afternoon usual -- soup and salad -- at Gallagher's Steak House in Manhattan before going over to the Circle in the Square Theater where the play is running.

The 90-minute drama, which was filmed last spring, is about a Vermont town that adopts a family of Cambodian refugees in the mid-'80s. Airing only a few days after the arrival of the United Nations' peacekeeping force in Phnom-Penh, it is a somber reminder of the genocide and mayhem to which Cambodians have been subjected by more than a decade of civil war. In the drama, which is based on actual events, many U.S. officials are portrayed as insensitive and bumbling. The production co-stars Blair Brown ("Days and Nights of Molly Dodd") and Brenda Fricker ("My Left Foot").

"I thought it was brave to present that view, to come right out and say it," says Wright, who plays the one character able to reach and befriend a young Cambodian psychologically scarred by his experiences.

In it, as well as the play in which she is "Granny" to George C. Scott's "Gramps," Wright plays the nice-lady type. It's consistent with the image of most of her characters during a long stage and screen career that began in the late '30s.

By the time she was 24, Wright had been nominated for three Academy Awards, including the one she won for "Mrs. Miniver" in 1942 -- the same year she was also nominated for "Pride of the Yankees," in which she played Lou Gehrig's wife, Eleanor. There were no more Oscar nominations but many other roles, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943) and William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), her favorite movies.

"But while I loved doing them," she says of these early movies, "I was so very young. I feel I grew as an actress, therefore my performance in 'Miracle Worker' (for television) was a lot better."

Sam Goldwyn brought Wright to Hollywood in 1941 for Wyler's "The Little Foxes." "It wasn't so much fun at the time, but I'm very grateful for the experience, he made such wonderful pictures," she says of the notorious producer who suspended the actress several times. "I had two children while I was under contract and each time I stopped working, all of which aggravated Mr. Goldwyn no end. He fired me for refusing to go on a publicity trip."

When she agrees to take a role, Wright says she wants to feel she can "understand how this woman must feel so the outside of me is not too at odds with the inside of what she would be." While so many characters have been sweet, understanding women -- and some of them borderline sappy -- "what I like to find in a character is that she has both a soft side and a harder, tough side. Cardboard characters are no fun. There's no place you can go in cardboard, no depth."

The current grannies both have possibilities -- "if we knew more about them." In both scripts, Wright's character dies -- "that's something I seem to do a lot of these days," she says laughing.

A native New Yorker who lives in Connecticut, Wright says she always wanted to be an actress. "My father was an insurance man and traveled a lot, my mother was not around, so I was parked with a lot of people, friends and relatives. Very early I got to know a lot of different lifestyles and I think that's good for an actress. "

Wright was in "Death of a Salesman" with Scott in 1975 and was last on Broadway in 1980 in "Morning's at Seven," another play by Paul Osborne who also wrote "On Borrowed Time." Both were reasons why she says she jumped at the chance to do this play. "And it's a comedy. There's nothing like hearing an audience laugh. Oh, it's nice to make people cry, but nicer to make them laugh.

"I much prefer the theater, but I do less and less of it. I feel my age," says Wright, who looks chipper but says she has a recurring "weird inflammatory thing that keeps flaring up [she's had pneumonia seven times] and I shouldn't get tired or stressful -- lots of luck in this business.

"Especially in winter I'm so terrified of getting sick and not being able to perform," she says. "Maybe I'll become just a summertime actress. " Meanwhile, she gets to the theater early -- about two hours before the proverbial curtain rises. "Not to get myself into the role," she says with a laugh. "I know the person, I just want enough energy to play her."

© 1991 Newsday

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