Actress Helen Stenborg Passes Away at 86


Helen Stenborg, a Tony-nominated, Obie Award-winning actress and long-time spouse of the late Tony Award-winning actor Barnard Hughes, died Tuesday evening, March 22 at her Manhattan apartment. Her son Doug Hughes and daughter Laura Hughes were at her bedside. She was 86.

Stenborg was born on January 24, 1925 in Minneapolis, MN., the daughter of Ambrose Stenborg, a dentist and his wife, Ida. She completed high school in three and a half years and at the age of 17, just a little more than a month after Pearl Harbor, moved to New York to begin her career as an actress. During that time, she lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and studied with Miss Frances Robinson-Duff, a respected acting teacher of the time. Before she was out of her teens, she performed in the national tours of THREE'S A FAMILY and CLAUDIA, both popular wartime comedies. She was also a USO girl and performed for Allied troops in Italy and France.

While rehearsing a veteran's hospital show in 1946, she met her future husband, the late actor Barnard Hughes. In the 1950s, they performed together at The Tenthouse Theater, a stock company that divided its time between Chicago and Palm Springs, where the couple was married in April, 1950. Her last Broadway performance was in 2002 as Rebecca Nurse in Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. In 1999, she performed on Broadway with her husband in Noel Coward's WAITING IN THE WINGS in a production that starred Lauren Bacall and RoseMary Harris. She was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the pyromaniac Sarita Myrtle. She and her husband celebrated their fiftieth anniversary onstage in the Coward play. They were honored with Drama Desk Awards for Lifetime Achievement in 2000.

Other Broadway appearances include the Roundabout Theatre Company production of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, starring Helen Mirren and Hugh Leonard's A LIFE. She toured with her husband in the national company of Leonard's Tony-Award Winning DA, the play for which Mr. Hughes won the 1978 Tony Award for Best Actor. She was a long time member of New York's Circle Repertory Company, appearing with William Hurt, Jeff Daniels, and Judd Hirsch in the original productions of Lanford Wilson's THE HOT L BALTIMORE, THE FIFTH OF JULY and TALLEY AND SON, for which she was awarded the Obie for distinguished performance in 1986. Her questions to Wilson about the back story of her character Sally Talley during rehearsals for THE FIFTH OF JULY inspirEd Wilson to write TALLEY'S FOLLY, his Pulitzer Prize winning play about the character's courtship by accountant Matt Friedman.

For sixteen summers, the actress was a devoted member of The Acting Company at The O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Ct.

In 1999, Ms. Stenborg played E.M Ashford, mentor to John Donne scholar, Vivian Bearing (played by Kathleen Chalfant) in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning WIT. The play's penultimate scene depicted the rigorous academic reading the children's book THE RUNAWAY BUNNY to her dying protégé.

Film work includes the leading role of an older woman befriended by a motorcycle gang in the Academy Award-winning short, HER MOTHER DREAMS, ON THE HOOK with Frank Langella and Elliot Gould, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, STARTING OVER with Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds, ENCHANTED and DOUBT. She worked extensively in television, including a long stint as an evil housekeeper on the soap opera "Another World."

In September 2010, at the age of 84, Ms. Stenborg appeared in Morris Panych's VIGIL with Malcolm Gets at the DR 2 Theatre in Manhattan, winning The Richard Seff Award for the best performance by a veteran female character actress in a supporting role. At the awards ceremony, her son noted that in her early days as an actress in New York, Ms. Stenborg had probably had the shortest career as a waitress in the history of Schrafft's, being fired after less than a day. It was, he said, a great satisfaction to his mother that she had now managed to long outlast the restaurant chain.

Stenborg is survived by her son director Doug Hughes and his partner actress Kate Jennings Grant, her daughter, actress Laura Hughes and her partner, actor/director/producer John Gould Rubin and her grandson Sam Hughes Rubin. Funeral services will be held on Monday, April 4th at 10:30 a.m at The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as The Little Church Around the Corner at 1 East 29th St. between Fifth and Madison. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made either to the Actor's Fund or The Episcopal Actors' Guild.


Photo Credit: Peter James Zielinski

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