Phyllis Somerville, Busy Stage and Screen Actress, Dies at 76


Phyllis Somerville, whose scores of stage, television and film roles included a cranky bigot in the 2018 Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a cranky neighbor of the main character in the Showtime series “The Big C,” died on Thursday at her home in Manhattan. She was 76.

Paul Hilepo, her manager, announced the death. No cause was specified.

Ms. Somerville, though rarely the lead, thrived in secondary roles and ensemble work. She began turning up on New York stages in the 1970s, making her Broadway debut in “Over Here!,” a musical about life on the home front during World War II. She was rarely idle for long over the next 45 years.

She made her film debut in 1981 in a small role in “Arthur,” the Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli vehicle, and beginning in the early 1990s she turned up regularly on television, appearing in episodes of “NYPD Blue,” “The Sopranos,” “Kidnapped” and other series.

Her character, Marlene, was featured in all four seasons of “The Big C,” the acclaimed comic drama that starred Laura Linney as a cancer patient. Mary McNamara, a television critic at The Los Angeles Times, said that Ms. Somerville “inevitably steals every scene she’s in.”

She also had a recurring role on the WGN America series “Outsiders,” which ran for two seasons beginning in 2016.

In one of her last roles, in the 2019 film “Poms,” she was among a group of women in a retirement village who start a cheerleading club. She may have been able to tap some long-ago firsthand experience for that role. In a 2007 interview with The Waterloo Courier of Iowa, she mentioned that she had spent her high school years in Cresco, Iowa.

“Great wrestling town,” she said. “I know that because I was a cheerleader.”

Phyllis Jeanne Somerville was born on Dec. 12, 1943, in Iowa City. Her father, Paul, was a Methodist minister, and her mother, Lefa Mary Pash Somerville, was a librarian.

Ms. Somerville graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 1966 and, having been involved in theater since high school, eventually made her way to Manhattan and settled in the East Village.

She became a favorite of the director Tom Moore, who after casting her in “Over Here!” also gave her a role in “Once in a Lifetime,” the 1978 Broadway revival of a Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman comedy, starring John Lithgow.

In 1983 Mr. Moore made her the standby for Kathy Bates in the Broadway production of “’night, Mother,” Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. The next year, he cast her in Ms. Norma’s follow-up, “Traveler in the Dark,” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in a cast that also included Hume Cronyn and Sam Waterston.

Ms. Somerville’s only other Broadway credit was in “Mockingbird,” in which she played Mrs. Dubose, a virulent racist. She was better known Off Broadway and in regional theaters.

She had a rare star turn in 1987 in an unusual production at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, playing the artist Georgia O’Keeffe in a one-woman show by Constance Congdon, created in conjunction with an art exhibition there.

Ms. Somerville worked several times with Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, including in 2001, when she played the owner of the title establishment in “The Spitfire Grill,” a musical based on the film of the same title.

Her movie work included the Todd Field film “Little Children” (2006), in which she played the protective mother of a pedophile.

“As a preacher’s kid from Iowa,” she told The Courier, “ I find it a film that has a lot to say about atonement and forgiveness.”

Ms. Somerville’s marriage to David Darlow ended in divorce. No immediate family members survive.

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