LOS ANGELES – Eleanor Parker, who was nominated for Academy Awards three times for her portrayals of strong-willed women and played a scheming baroness in “The Sound of Music,” has died at 91.
Family friend Richard Gale said Parker died Monday morning due to complications from pneumonia. “She passed away peacefully, surrounded by her children at a medical facility near her home in Palm Springs,” Gale added.
Parker was nominated for Oscars in 1950, 1951 and 1955, but then saw her career begin to wane in the early 1960s. Her last memorable role came in 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” in which she played the scheming baroness who loses Christopher Plummer to Julie Andrews.
“Eleanor Parker was and is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever known,” said Plummer in a statement. “Both as a person and as a beauty. I hardly believe the sad news for I was sure she was enchanted and would live forever.”
Parker’s death comes at a time when “The Sound of Music” is back in the spotlight following NBC’s live restaging of the classic last week – a ratings smash.
Parker worked only infrequently after “The Sound of Music,” appearing in films and on such TV shows as “Fantasy Island,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Love Boat.” She also starred in the short-lived 1960s TV series “Bracken’s World.”
“I’m primarily a character actress,” she said in a 1988 interview, explaining why she never achieved the stardom of so many of her co-stars. “I’ve portrayed so many diverse individuals on the screen that my own personality never emerged.”
Like William Holden, Robert Preston, Dustin Hoffman and others, Parker was discovered at the Pasadena Playhouse.
She was signed to a contract at Warner Bros., where she played only minor roles until the studio recognized her dramatic depth and cast her as Mildred Rogers in the 1946 remake of “Of Human Bondage.”
The Somerset Maugham story had made Bette Davis a star 12 years before. On Parker’s first day of filming, Davis sent her flowers and a note proclaiming, “I hope Mildred does as much for your career as she did for mine.”
But the film flopped, and Parker was again relegated to mediocre roles until her breakthrough performance as an inmate in a brutal prison in the 1950 film “Caged.” The role brought Parker her first Oscar nomination, for best actress.
Her second came the following year as Kirk Douglas’s frustrated wife in “Detective Story.”
Her career fully blossomed with such follow-up films as “Scaramouche” with Stewart Granger, “Above and Beyond” with Robert Taylor, “Escape from Fort Bravo” with Holden, “Valley of the Kings” with Taylor, and “The Naked Jungle” with Charlton Heston.
She took on one of her most challenging roles in 1955 in “Interrupted Melody,” portraying opera star Marjorie Lawrence, who continued her career after contracting polio. Faced with having to lip-sync nine arias in three languages, she holed up in a Lake Arrowhead cabin for two weeks and played records eight to 10 hours a day.
The result: her third Oscar nomination.
Other notable films included “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “A Hole in the Head” (both opposite Frank Sinatra) and “The King and Four Queens” with Gable.
Growing up in Cedarsville, Ohio, Parker had yearned to be an actress, and when the family moved to Cleveland, she began taking acting lessons. In the summer she worked as an apprentice in a Martha’s Vineyard stock company, waiting tables to support herself.
After moving to Pasadena, she was cast in her first movie role at 19, a bit part in “They Died With Their Boots On,” starring Errol Flynn.
Parker’s first three marriages ended in divorce: to Navy dentist Fred L. Losse; producer Bert Friedlob, which resulted in three children, Susan, Sharon and Richard; and painter Paul Clemens, with whom she had a son, actor Paul Clemens. Her 1966 marriage to Shubert Theater manager Raymond Hirsch ended with his death in 2001.