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Friday
Apr062018

R.I.P. SUSAN ANSPACH

Actress Susan Anspach, who skirted mainstream fame in favour of richly rewarding roles in critically acclaimed dramas for much of the 1970s, has passed away in her Los Angeles home. She was 75.

Her son Caleb Goddard announced his mother’s passing in a statement to The New York Times. The cause of death has been attributed to coronary failure.

Born November 23, 1942 in Queens, New York, Anspach left a troubled home life at age 15 and was raised by a family in Harlem, aided by contributions from the local Catholic church. She trained in theatre and music at Catholic University in Washington before heading back to New York City, where she quickly built a professional reputation as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation.

Anspach was at the forefront of a new wave of American acting talent. Her contemporaries included Jon Voigt and Robert Duvall, with whom she made her Off-Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge (pictured, right), and Dustin Hoffman, who appeared alongside her in Ronald Turgenev’s The Journey of The Fifth Horse. She also played the lead role of Sheila in the final Off Broadway production of the iconic musical Hair.

After steady work in television series such as The Defenders and The Patty Duke Show, Anspach made her film debut opposite Beau Bridges and Lee Grant in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970). That same year, she found her breakout movie role opposite Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, a major box office hit that earned four Academy Award nominations.

Anspach projected a rock-solid independence, a personification of the free-spirited counterculture woman of the 60s; as ‘Catherine Van Oost’, the engaged woman who has a torrid fling with her fiance’s brother, Jack Nicholson’s anti-hero ‘Robert Dupea’, she became synonymous with the fierce, free-willed woman taking control at the start of the new decade.

Her acclaimed performance led to a string of films for which she earned industry credibility. She went laugh-for-laugh with Woody Allen in Herbert Ross’ 1972 adaptation of Allen’s play, Play It Again, Sam. She followed that with her most acclaimed performance, the role of ‘Nina’ opposite George Segal’s cuckolded schlub in Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love (1973; pictured, below); Roger Ebert called her performance one of “a very complex charm”.

Anspach found work in television through much of the 1970s (she starred in four telemovies at the height of the long form drama’s popularity), yet appeared only occasionally on the big screen. She co-starred with Richard Dreyfuss in Jeremy Kagan’s private eye romp The Big Fix (1978); played the love interest of marathon runner Michael Douglas in Steven Hilliard Stern’s Running (1979), reteaming with the journeyman director for the Elliott Gould/Bill Cosby comedy The Devil and Max Devlin (1981). The same year, she was the lead in Les Rose’s broad satire, Gas.

It was also the year in which Susan Anspach undertook the most challenging role of her career, as ‘Marilyn Jordan’ in Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev’s Palme d’Or nominee, Montenegro. As the bored, wealthy housewife who unleashes her wild side in the company of bohemian European revellers, Anspach was as fearless before the camera as any actress of her generation. Says Ebert, “Anspach, who is not robust, and who is in fact rather shy and frail, may not seem like a likely candidate to enter this world, but she undergoes a transformation in the movie.”

Anspach would work steadily for the rest of her career, mostly in television. Her movie roles were often in quality films that were box office underperformers (Jerry Schatzberg’s Misunderstood, 1984, opposite Gene Hackman and Henry Thomas; Ulli Lommel’s Heaven and Earth, 1987), or in paycheck parts in B-movies (William Fruet’s Blue Monkey, 1987; John Kincade’s Back to Back, with starlet Apollonia and Bill Paxton, 1989). Her final role was in Nikolai Müllerschön’s Inversion in 2010.

Susan Anspach was married twice; to actor Mark Goddard (1970-1978) and musician Sherwood Ball, whom she divorced in 1986. She is survived by her son Caleb, fathered by Jack Nicholson (despite the actor’s claims to the contrary), daughter Catherine and three grandchildren.

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