POSTED June 18 2012

Susan Tyrrell, a character actress with character

Susan Tyrrell in Fat City

I don’t have official confirmation. But We Are Movie Geeks reports that gravel-voiced character actress Susan Tyrrell, who won an Oscar nomination for her turn as the sodden barfly in John Huston’s Fat City, is dead at 67. Eerie coincidence: Fat City is airing on TCM at 8 pm tonight and I was looking forward to rewatching Tyrrell’s performance for the first time since I saw the melancholy film about boxers (Stacy Keach as the boxer on the wane and Jeff Bridges as the one on the rise) in 1972.

Although Tyrrell would subsequently be a “superstar” in Andy Warhol’s orbit (she played Carroll Baker’s wacky sister-in-law in the hitwomen-raise-hell comedy Bad) and be Ben Gazzara’s drinking bud in Tales of Ordinary Madness and make oddball turns in charming outsider art such as  Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and  John Waters’ Cry-Baby, nothing quite had the resonance of her performance as Oma in Fat City. Resembling something the cat wouldn’t drag in and speaking in her sandpaper purr, Tyrrell was an  outsider’s idea of an outsider. (She was a friend of Tennessee Williams — if memory serves she appeared onstage in his Camino Real — who told her, “My favorite actors are 50 per cent female and 50 per cent male; you, my dear, are neither.”)

She had a colorful and difficult life, as Chris Garcia outlines here: Casting-couch treatment from Huston, from which she never fully recovered, a tempestuous love affair with Herve Villechaize (Tattoo on Fantasy Island), with whom she starred in the aptly-tiled Forbidden Zone and an amputation of both legs due to a rare blood disease. Her story would make a compelling John Waters biopic, Waters because he would celebrate her indefatigability and originality and not the freakshow aspects of her life.

Favorite Tyrrell performance?


  1. HENRI says:

    Definitely “Fat City”

  2. Anne Sharp says:

    Definitely “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.”

    Sayonara, sweetie. Bon voyage, bimbo.


  3. Sad but scarcely unsurising. I saw her perform at Hi-Ways here in L.A. a nuymber of years back, just prior to the amputations.

    She was one of a kind.

    I also reccomend her performance in Marco Ferreri’s “Tales of Ordinary Madness.”

  4. mark s. says:

    Oh, nuts!! I just watched her in ‘Fat City’, hosted by Ellen Barkin on TCM, and didn’t know how to react to her performance at all. I mean, did she shoot her scenes sloshed or was she really acting? She went so deep into the sodden dregs of alcoholism it was hard to tell if she was performing or reeling drunk. She made Ray Milland look like he was sipping Shirley Temples in ‘The Lost Weekend’.

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