Representatives of the actress Susan Tyrrell have reported that the actress died Saturday, at the age of 65. The daughter of a William Morris agent, Tyrrell began acting in her teens and made her way to New York, where her theater credits, on and off Broadway, included Cactus Flower, Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers Of Eldritch, and Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real. It was Williams who paid her the ultimate backhanded compliment, “My favorite actors are 50-percent male and 50-percent female, and you, my dear, are neither.”
Tyrrell made her movie debut in the 1971 Gregory Peck Western Shoot Out and appeared in such early-’70s obscurities as The Steagle and the film version of Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long Up It Looks Like Up To Me, before landing the role of Oma, a sharp-tongued barfly who briefly hooks up with a washed-up boxer (Stacy Keach), in John Huston’s 1972 comeback film, Fat City. Her flamboyant performance earned the then-unknown actress an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She didn’t win, but she put earn herself a spot on the map as a go-to character actress for mean drunks and nuts, as well as one of those eccentric performers who seem to bring their own one-person experimental theater troupe to any project.
She appeared in the 1972 Catch My Soul (a rock musical version of Othello, directed by Number Six himself, Patrick McGoohan), Zandy’s Bride (1974), the Jim Thompson adaptation The Killer Inside Me (1976) with Keach, the Hemingway adaptation Islands In The Stream (1977), Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977). I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1977), Claude Lelouch’s Another Man, Another Chance (1977), Loose Shoes (1980), the Charles Bukowski-inspired Tales Of Ordinary Madness (1981), Fast-Walking (1982), and, as Queen Doris of the Eighth Dimension, Richard Elfman’s midnight-movie musical fantasia Forbidden Zone (1982), which cast her freak-diva image in gold and stuck a corsage on it.
After briefly holding down a steady job on the hilarious but quickly canceled TV sitcom Open All Night (1981-82), she was in the exploitation hit Angel (1984) and its sequel, Avenging Angel (1985); Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood (1985); Tapeheads (1988); Big Top Pee-wee (1988); John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990), as Mrs. Iggy Pop; and Powder (1995). She also did voice work for the Ralph Bakshi films Wizards (1977) and Fire And Ice (1983), and animated TV series as Cow And Chicken, I Am Weasel, and Extreme Ghostbusters, as well as the What’s Up Tiger Lily-inspired send-up, What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon (1983).
Tyrrell also continued to work in TV and theater, performing her one-woman show, My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta. In 2000, she had both her legs amputated below the knee after contracting essential thrombocythemia. After that, she still took what movie roles she could get, most notably playing a fortune teller in the Bob Dylan vehicle Masked And Anonymous (2003). In 2008, she relocated to Austin, where she was taken up by the local arts community as a living embodiment of the fringe pop culture of the past 40 years. In 2000, after her operation, she told an L.A. Weekly reporter that “The last thing my mother said to me was, ‘SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.’ I’ve always liked that, and I’ve always tried to live up to it.”