Two-time Oscar nominee Jill Clayburgh died Friday surrounded by her family at her home in Lakeville, Conn., after a 21-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. She was 66.
Her husband, Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe, said she dealt with the disease courageously, quietly and privately, “and made it into an opportunity for her children to grow and be human.”
Clayburgh is known for portrayals of empowered women in a career spanning five decades, highlighted by her Oscar-nominated role of a divorcee exploring life after marriage in the 1978 film “An Unmarried Woman.”
Clayburgh came from a privileged New York family, the daughter of Julia Louise (née Dorr), a theatrical production secretary for David Merrick, and Albert Henry “Bill” Clayburgh, vive-president of two large companies. Her paternal grandmother was concert and opera singer Alma Lachenbruch Clayburgh. Jill Clayburgh’s father’s family was Jewish and upper class; she was raised in a “fashionable” neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she attended the prestigious Brearley School. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she decided that she wanted to be an actress.
Clayburgh married screenwriter and playwright David Rabe in 1979. They had one son, Michael Rabe and one daughter, actress Lily Rabe.
Clayburgh joined the Charles Street Repertory Theater in Boston. She appeared in numerous Broadway productions in the 1960s and 1970s, including The Rothschilds and Pippin. Clayburgh made her screen debut in The Wedding Party, filmed in 1963 but not released until six years later, and gained attention with roles such as that of Gene Wilder’s love interest in the 1976 comedy-mystery Silver Streak, co-starring Richard Pryor.
Her portrayals of a New Yorker whose husband leaves her in ‘An Unmarried Woman’ and a teacher who begins a relationship with a recently divorced man played by Burt Reynolds in ‘Starting Over’ won her nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She also received strong notices for a dramatic performance in I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can (which co-starred Geraldine Page).
Clayburgh, alongside such peers as Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine, Pam Greer and Jane Fonda, helped to usher in a new era for actresses in Hollywood, carving out an iconic image of the empowered American woman, the symbol of social change in the 70s.
Clayburgh’s work also stretched across TV. She had a recurring role on Fox’s “Ally McBeal” as McBeal’s mother Jeannie and most recently played the family matriarch Letitia Darling of the spoiled Darling family on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money.” She earned two Emmy nods: for best actress in 1975 for portraying a tell-it-like-it-is prostitute in the ABC TV film “Hustling” and for her guest turn in 2005 as a vengeful plastic surgery patient on FX’s “Nip/Tuck.”
Clayburgh’s daughter, Broadway actress Lily Rabe, took a short, compassionate leave from Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice, in which she stars alongside Al Pacino to be with her mother. Rabe, who plays wealthy Portia in the Shakespeare play, has been forced to pull out of several performances at the Broadhurst Theatre this week. She is expected to miss more shows.
Clayburgh is survived by her husband David Rabe, and her son, Michael Rabe and daughter,Lily Rabe and stepson Jason Rabe.
There will be no funeral but the family will have a memorial in about six months.
I remember enjoying her movie “An Unmarried Woman” during my teens. It would be great to watch it again after all these years so I am thinking of looking for the DVD.