Written by Her Son Casey Dolan
Acclaimed stage, screen and television actress Nan Martin passed away Thursday morning (March 4) due to complications from emphysema. She was 82. Born in Decatur, Illinois, and raised in Santa Monica, California, Martin became one of the leading actresses of her generation, consistently working to within four years of her death.
Daughter of a WWI veteran and cornetist father Clarence Martin and cellist mother Frances, she demonstrated her drive and abilities at an early age by becoming the first female student body president of Santa Monica High School. Martin attended UCLA and studied at the Max Reinhardt School and Actors’ Lab. After a move to New York City with first husband, screen composer Robert Emmett Dolan, she became a first-year member of the Actors’ Studio.
After working in summer stock and various repertory companies, she first achieved public notice during the production of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. in the role of Sarah for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play in 1960. Her costars were Pat Hingle, Christopher Plummer and Raymond Massey. Many groundbreaking Shakespeare productions with Joseph Papp as director followed, including The Merchant of Venice (she as Portia; George C. Scott as Shylock), Hamlet (she as Gertrude; Al Ryder as Hamlet; Julie Harris as Ophelia) and Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice opposite J.D. Cannon’s Benedict).
In addition to the stage performances, her presence on television increased with roles in such iconic shows as The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, The Defenders and The Untouchables.
She and her husband divorced in 1963 but her life and work broadened in scope. For much of that year, she lived in London, acting in The Three Sisters with George C. Scott, Sandy Dennis and Kim Stanley.
At this time, the Ford Foundation helped to set up a program under the Department of State for Cultural Exchange. Martin was the chairperson of the theater committee and a member of the Arts Advisory Committee, appointed by President Kennedy. Her job led to many travels, particularly important sojourns to Israel and Greece.
Martin’s dedication to the art of acting was complete and thorough. Every role was a discovery and her choices were fearless as in the 1964 production of Leroi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) The Slave, a play which threw a spotlight on racial tensions.
She was an enthusiastic supporter of regional theater during the ’60s, acting in productions at the Arena Stage (Washington D.C.) and the Alley Theater (Houston) and participated in the inaugural season of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1967 with Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.
A film career had developed concurrently with notable roles in Toys in the Attic (with Dean Martin), For the Love of Ivy (with Sidney Poitier) and Goodbye Columbus (with Ali McGraw and Dick Benjamin). This continued into the ’70s when she became a stalwart regular of “Movies of the Week” on TV.
Martin explored every aspect of the drama of language, including a tour of one-woman poetry readings booked through the Center Theatre Group and narrating a production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio in San Antonio, Texas.
In 1969, she married California architect Harry Gesner, with whom she had attended Santa Monica High School 25 years earlier (and had not seen since), and moved to Tarzana, California and later Malibu. They stayed together for 41 years.
Martin suffered a stroke in 1981, which did nothing to inhibit her work. During the 1980s, she enjoyed a string of successes, particularly with the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and for which she won several Drama-Logue Awards for Best Performance: The Road to Mecca (with writer Athol Fugard, and for which also she won the Helen Hayes Award for a separate production at the Kennedy Center with both Fugard and Kathy Bates), Odd Jobs and Once in Arden. Other important South Coast Repertory productions included Buried Child and Aunt Dan and Lemon. She was also a mainstay at the Los Angeles Theater Center, acting in such productions as All My Sons and The Sea Gull.
She appeared in more films such as The Other Side of the Mountain (Parts 1 and 2), Dr. Detroit, Some Kind of Hero, Nightmare on Elm Street: Part Three (in which she was Freddie Krueger’s mother), Castaway, Big Eden and did numerous readings for National Public Radio flagship KCRW. She taught acting at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum and at El Cerritos College and participated in the AFI Program for Women Directors, directing two short films.
Several prominent playwrights had close relationships with Martin including Edward Albee (for whose play, Three Tall Women, Martin won the coveted Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress Performance of 1995), Tennessee Williams (Eccentricities of a Nightingale) and Horton Foote (Dividing the Estate and Getting Frankie Married).
Television audiences will remember Martin best by her regular appearance as the lively Mrs. Louder on The Drew Carey Show and plentiful guest appearances on such hit shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Gideon’s Crossing, Nip/Tuck, The Practice, E.R., Chicago Hope, Suddenly Susan, Columbo, Harry and the Hendersons and Golden Girls.
She is survived by husband, architect Harry Gesner, and sons, musician and writer Casey Dolan (by the first marriage) and actor/producer Zen Gesner.