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Glenne Headly, a Versatile and Scene-Stealing Actress, Dies at 62


Glenne Headly in 1997.

via Photofest

Glenne Headly, whose acting career took shape at the renowned Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago and found its biggest audience in Hollywood with films like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Dick Tracy,” died on Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 62.

The cause was complications of a pulmonary embolism, her husband, Byron McCulloch, said.

Ms. Headly moved easily from comedy to drama and from stage to screen. Not often cast in lead roles, she played her parts with a subtle, scene-stealing panache.

She was nominated twice for Primetime Emmy Awards for supporting roles in the mini-series “Lonesome Dove” (1989), in which she played Elmira, the sheriff’s wife, and the television movie “Bastard Out of Carolina” (1996), in which she played the sister of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character.

Her high-pitched, girlish voice gave her a spacey, sometimes ditsy, quality that worked well in comic roles. But for her dramatic work she could lower its register, as she did to play a prostitute in the Lanford Wilson play “Balm in Gilead,” in New York and Chicago.

“But day to day, if someone meets me, they’ll think I have this breathy, airy, airhead voice,” she told the industry publication Backstage in 2001. “I thought for a long time I should just change my voice. I should just work at it, since I’m so good at accents. I should just focus and do it all day long. But I can’t do it.”

Her facility at accents came into play on the set of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), in which Steve Martin and Michael Caine played con artists who target her character as their latest mark. During a break in filming on the French Riviera, New York magazine reported, Mr. Martin cajoled her to do some imitations.

“Steve, I’m not one of those people who put on shows for you,” she told Mr. Martin. But when she relented and conjured a thick Long Island accent, Mr. Martin was so excited that he rushed to tell the director, Frank Oz, and the voice became integral to the finale, when Ms. Headly’s character turns the tables on the con men.


Glenne Headly and Michael Caine in the 1988 film “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Bob Penn/Orion Pictures

Two years later, when she played Tess Truehart in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” she took the character’s name literally. “I think ‘Truehart’ suggests to me a very caring and largehearted woman,” she told The Los Angeles Times, “one that does things because she believes in them, because it’s actually the character’s credo.”

In his review of the movie, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that Ms. Headly was a “terrific comedienne” who had the “placid beauty of a Renaissance Madonna.”

Glenne Aimee Headly was born on March 13, 1955, in New London, Conn., and grew up with her mother, the former Joan Ida Sniscak, in Greenwich Village. By second grade, she had declared her goal of becoming a movie star. And in grade school she performed skits — a cocktail party, a beauty contest, an operation — in which she played all the roles.

“Just for close friends, though,” she told New York magazine. “I felt uncomfortable unless I knew the people real well; I still do.”

She graduated from what was then the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan and the American College of Switzerland. When she returned to New York, she took acting classes and waited tables at a restaurant with the actress Ellen Barkin before leaving for Chicago.

In the late 1970s, Steppenwolf was fast becoming one of the most acclaimed regional theaters in the country. Ms. Headly worked there with Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise and the actor and director John Malkovich (who became her first husband), and had roles in “Goodnight Gracie,” “Mother Courage” and “Born Yesterday,” in addition to “Balm in Gilead, for which she was also the costumer, shopping in thrift stores to stay within a tiny budget.

Ms. Headly made her Broadway debut in 1985 in Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” as the heroine, Raina, in a cast that also included Kevin Kline and Raul Julia. In his review in The Times, Frank Rich wrote, “Miss Headly plays her hand with a winning, newly awakened adult poise that reduces both Mr. Kline and Mr. Julia to helpless tots.”

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her mother and a son, Stirling. Her marriage to Mr. Malkovich ended in divorce.

In recent years, she appeared on the television series “Monk,” “E.R.” and “The Night Of,” and in the films “Don Jon” and “The Circle.” At her death she was filming the Hulu series “Future Man” with Ed Begley Jr. According to Deadline.com, her part will not be recast.

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