Broadway star Celeste Holm dies at 95; won Oscar for performance in 'Gentleman's Agreement'

Associated Press

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Celeste Holm, a versatile, bright-eyed blonde who soared to Broadway fame in "Oklahoma!" and won an Oscar in "Gentleman's Agreement" but whose last years were filled with financial difficulty and estrangement from her sons, died Sunday, a relative said. She was 95.

Holm had been hospitalized about two weeks ago with dehydration after a fire in actor Robert De Niro's apartment in the same Manhattan building. She had asked her husband on Friday to bring her home, and she spent her final days with her husband, Frank Basile, and other relatives and close friends by her side, said Amy Phillips, a great-niece of Holm's who answered the phone at Holm's apartment on Sunday.

Holm died around 3:30 a.m. at her longtime apartment on Central Park West, Phillips said.

"I think she wanted to be here, in her home, among her things, with people who loved her," she said.

In a career that spanned more than half a century, Holm played everyone from Ado Annie — the girl who just can't say no in "Oklahoma!"— to a worldly theatrical agent in the 1991 comedy "I Hate Hamlet" to guest star turns on TV shows such as "Fantasy Island" and "Love Boat II" to Bette Davis' best friend in "All About Eve."

She won the Academy Award in 1947 for best supporting actress for her performance in "Gentlemen's Agreement" and received Oscar nominations for "Come to the Stable" (1949) and "All About Eve" (1950).

Holm was also known for her untiring charity work — at one time she served on nine boards — and was a board member emeritus of the National Mental Health Association.

She was once president of the Creative Arts Rehabilitation Center, which treats emotionally disturbed people using arts therapies. Over the years, she raised $20,000 for UNICEF by charging 50 cents apiece for autographs.

President Ronald Reagan appointed her to a six-year term on the National Council on the Arts in 1982. In New York, she was active in the Save the Theatres Committee and was once arrested during a vigorous protest against the demolition of several theatres.

But late in her life she was caught up in a bitter, multi-year legal family battle that pitted her two sons against her and her fifth husband — former waiter Basile, whom she married in 2004 and was more than 45 years her junior. The court fight over investments and inheritance wiped away much of her savings and left her dependent on Social Security. The actress and her sons no longer spoke, and she was sued for overdue maintenance and legal fees on her Manhattan apartment.

The future Broadway star was born in New York on April 29, 1919, the daughter of Norwegian-born Theodore Holm, who worked for the American branch of Lloyd's of London, and Jean Parke Holm, a painter and writer.

She was smitten by the theatre as a 3-year-old when her grandmother took her to see ballerina Anna Pavlova. "There she was, being tossed in midair, caught, no mistakes, no falls. She never knew what an impression she made," Holm recalled years later.

She attended 14 schools growing up, including the Lycee Victor Duryui in Paris when her mother was there for an exhibition of her paintings. She studied ballet for 10 years.

Her first Broadway success came in 1939 in the cast of William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life." But it was her creation of the role of man-crazy Ado Annie Carnes in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!" in 1943 that really impressed the critics.

She only auditioned for the role because of World War II, she said years later. "There was a need for entertainers in Army camps and hospitals. The only way you could do that was if you were singing in something."

Holm was hired by La Vie Parisienne, and later by the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel to sing to their late-night supper club audiences after the "Oklahoma!" curtain fell.

The slender, blue-eyed blonde moved west to pursue a film career. "Hollywood is a good place to learn how to eat a salad without smearing your lipstick," she would say.

"Oscar Hammerstein told me, 'You won't like it,'" and he was right, she said. Hollywood "was just too artificial. The values are entirely different. That balmy climate is so deceptive." She returned to New York after several years.

Her well-known films included "The Tender Trap" and "High Society" but others were less memorable. "I made two movies I've never even seen," she told an interviewer in 1991.

She attributed her drive to do charity work to her grandparents and parents who "were always volunteers in every direction."

She said she learned first-hand the power of empathy in 1943 when she performed in a ward of mental patients and got a big smile from one man she learned later had been uncommunicative for six months.

"I suddenly realized with a great sense of impact how valuable we are to each other," she said.

In 1979 she was knighted by King Olav of Norway.

In her early 70s, an interviewer asked if she had ever thought of retiring. "No. What for?" she replied. "If people retired, we wouldn't have had Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud ... I think it's very important to hang on as long as we can."

In the 1990s, Holm and Gerald McRainey starred in CBS TV's "Promised Land," a spinoff of "Touched by an Angel." In 1995, she joined such stars as Tony Randall and Jerry Stiller to lobby for state funding for the arts in Albany, New York. Her last big screen role was as Brendan Fraser's grandmother in the romance "Still Breathing."

Holm was married five times and is survived by two sons and three grandchildren. Her marriage in 1938 to director Ralph Nelson lasted a year but produced a son, Theodor Holm Nelson. In 1940, she married Francis Davies, an English auditor. In 1946, she married airline public relations executive A. Schuyler Dunning and they had a son, Daniel Dunning.

During her fourth marriage, to actor Robert Wesley Addy, whom she married in 1966, the two appeared together on stage when they could. In the mid-1960s, when neither had a project going, they put together a two person show called "Interplay — An Evening of Theater-in-Concert" that toured the United States and was sent abroad by the State Department. Addy died in 1996.

Funeral arrangements for Holm haven't been made. The family is asking that any memorial donations be made to UNICEF or to The Lillian Booth Actors Home of The Actors Fund in Englewood, New Jersey.

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Associated Press Writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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