Jill Clayburgh, whose Broadway and Hollywood acting career stretched through the decades, highlighted by her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a divorcee exploring her sexuality in the 1978 film “An Unmarried Woman,” died Friday. She was 66.
Her husband, Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe, said she died after a 21-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. She was surrounded by her family and brother when she died at her home in Lakeville, Conn., he said.
She dealt with the disease courageously, quietly and privately, Rabe said, and conducted herself with enormous grace “and made it into an opportunity for her children to grow and be human.”
Clayburgh, alongside peers such as Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and Jane Fonda, helped to usher in a new era for actresses in Hollywood by playing women who were confident and capable yet not completely flawless. Her turn as a mother dealing with life after 16 years of marriage in “An Unmarried Woman” earned Clayburgh her first Oscar nod.
“There was practically nothing for women to do on the screen in the 1950s and 1960s,” Clayburgh said in an interview with the Associated Press while promoting “An Unmarried Woman” in 1978. “Sure, Marilyn Monroe was great, but she had to play a one-sided character, a vulnerable sex object. It was a real fantasy.”
The next year, Clayburgh was again nominated for an Academy Award for “Starting Over,” a comedy about a divorced man, played by Burt Reynolds, who falls in love but can’t get over his ex-wife.
Besides appearing in such movies as “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can,” “Silver Streak” and “Running With Scissors,” Clayburgh’s Broadway credits include Noel Coward’s “Design for Living,” the original production of Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers,” and the Tony Award-winning musicals “Pippin” and “The Rothschilds.”
Clayburgh’s work also stretched across TV. She most recently played the matriarch of the spoiled Darling family on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money.” She was nominated for two Emmys: for best actress in 1975 for portraying a prostitute in the TV film “Hustling” and for her guest turn as a vengeful plastic surgery patient on “Nip/Tuck” on FX in 2005. She also had a recurring role on “Ally McBeal” as McBeal’s mother.
Clayburgh is survived by three children, actress Lily Rabe, Michael Rabe and stepson Jason Rabe.