Tired of sitcoms and game shows, she reinvented herself in a one-woman show about Gertrude Stein — and, later, in a gender-bending Shakespeare role.
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Pat Carroll, who after many years on television as the self-described “dowager queen of game shows” went on to earn critical acclaim for her work on the stage, died on Saturday at her home on Cape Cod, Mass. She was 95.
Her daughter Kerry Karsian, who confirmed the death, said Ms. Carroll had been recovering from pneumonia.
Ms. Carroll broke into television as a sketch comedian in the 1950s and later became a fixture on “Password,” “I’ve Got a Secret” and other game shows. She was seen frequently on sitcoms like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and dramas like “Police Woman” — and years later heard in animation productions like Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” as the voice of Ursula the sea witch.
But it was a part she took in 1977, when she was 50, that inspired her to change direction.
In a 1979 interview with The New York Times, Ms. Carroll recalled being cast as Pearl Markowitz, an overly protective mother, on the short-lived comedy “Busting Loose,” and asking herself, “Is this all there is left — playing mothers on TV?”
Rather than sinking comfortably into that stereotype, Ms. Carroll provided a bold answer to her own question by commissioning Marty Martin, a young Texas playwright, to write a one-woman play for her about the poet Gertrude Stein.
“Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein” opened Off Broadway in 1979 and received glowing reviews. Ms. Carroll won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards in 1980 for the performance, and in 1981 her recording of the play won a Grammy Award in the “best spoken word” category.
“It was the jewel in my crown,” she said in an interview for this obituary in 2011, recalling how the play came about. “I was recently divorced, I had gained a lot of weight, and the phone was not ringing. It was not the agents’ or directors’ or producers’ fault that the phone was not ringing. I thought, ‘I am responsible for creating some kind of work.’ And I began thinking of people to do.”
A decade later, Ms. Carroll, still looking for challenging work, sought out the role of the conniving, overweight — and male — Falstaff in a production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Washington.
“When Ms. Carroll makes her first entrance,” Frank Rich wrote in The Times, “a nervous silence falls over the audience at the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger here, as hundreds of eyes search for some trace of the woman they’ve seen in a thousand television reruns. What they find instead is a Falstaff who could have stepped out of a formal painted portrait: a balding, aged knight with scattered tufts of silver hair and whiskers, an enormous belly, pink cheeks and squinting, froggy eyes that peer out through boozy mists. The sight is so eerie you grab onto your seat.”
“One realizes,” Mr. Rich continued, “that it is Shakespeare’s character, and not a camp parody, that is being served.”
Patricia Ann Carroll was born on May 5, 1927, in Shreveport, La., and grew up in Los Angeles. Her father, Maurice, worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; her mother, Kathryn (Meagher) Carroll, worked in real estate and office management.
Ms. Carroll attended college on an English scholarship, but left before graduating. “I realized that what I was learning was not going to advance what I wished to do,” she said in 2011. “I always thought experience was the best preparation.”
In 1947, Ms. Carroll left Los Angeles for Plymouth, Mass., where she worked at the Priscilla Beach Theater and, she said, ate, drank and breathed the theater. She made her professional stage debut there that year in “A Goose for the Gander,” starring Gloria Swanson. (Around this time she studied drama at the Catholic University of America in Washington.) She eventually made it to New York, where, among other odd jobs, she shined shoes while pursuing theater work.
She initially made her mark in the early 1950s as a comedian — first at Le Ruban Bleu, the Village Vanguard and other nightclubs, then on television, on “The Red Buttons Show” and other variety series.
She was a regular on the Sid Caesar sketch show “Caesar’s Hour,” for which she won an Emmy in 1957, and, in the early 1960s, on “The Danny Thomas Show,” on which she played the wife of the Thomas character’s manager.
Ms. Carroll made the first of her four Broadway appearances in 1955 in “Catch a Star!,” a revue written by Neil and Danny Simon. Her performance did not win the kind of notices that foreshadow stage success: Brooks Atkinson of The Times, for example, wrote that she did not have “a bold enough technique to come alive in the theater.”
The response was different in 1959 when she played Hildy, the flirtatious cabdriver who tries to persuade a shy sailor on 24-hour shore leave to come to her apartment with the song “I Can Cook, Too,” in a revival of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical “On the Town” at the Carnegie Hall Playhouse.
“If the evening has a star,” Arthur Gelb of The Times wrote, “it is Pat Carroll, a blue-eyed blonde with a genius for the deadpan and double take.”
Ms. Carroll’s work at the Folger Theater garnered her three Helen Hayes Awards: outstanding lead actress for her roles in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” and outstanding supporting actress for her role as the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Ms. Carroll’s marriage in 1955 to Lee Karsian, a William Morris agent, ended in divorce in 1975. In addition to her daughter Kerry, she is survived by another daughter, Tara Karsian, and a granddaughter. A son, Sean Karsian, died in 2009.
Although she spent most of her career on television (where her later work included appearances on “ER” and “Designing Women”) and the stage, Ms. Carroll also had some memorable roles on the big screen. In 1968 she played Doris Day’s sister in “With Six You Get Eggroll.” In 2000 she played an Appalachian grandmother in “Songcatcher,” a role that earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination and a jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
For many of her film and TV performances, Ms. Carroll went unseen: She provided voices for numerous cartoon characters, most notably the menacing sea witch Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” (1989). That role, she once said, was “the one thing in my life that I’m probably most proud of.”
“I don’t even care if, after I’m gone, the only thing that I’m associated with is Ursula,” she added. “That’s OK with me, because that’s a pretty wonderful character and a pretty marvelous film to be remembered by.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.