June 22, 2012
Any cinephile worth his or her salt has been made morose this week by news of the deaths of two great cult character actors of the seventies and eighties: Richard Lynch and Susan Tyrrell. Tyrrell was not only a fearless, full-out performer, but also a close friend of one of my high school pen pals, the film historian Justin Humphreys. I hope Justin publishes his astonishing stories about “Susu” someday.
Tyrrell made her film debut in 1971 and the scored the Oscar nomination that put her on the map a year later, in John Huston’s Fat City. She was also a guest star on Bonanza and Nichols around this time, but members of the Susu cult may be surprised to learn that she turned up on TV fully seven years earlier, while still a teenager, in a pair of fairly obscure prime-time guest shots. I noticed this before there was an IMDb, and was gobsmacked to discover this young version of Susu, who by the seventies looked and usually played older than her actual age.
Those two television roles consisted of a bit part on The Patty Duke Show – above is the best look you get at her, standing behind Patty’s right shoulder and registering surprise – and a star-making turn on Mr. Novak. In “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” a McCarthyism allegory written by Martha Wilkerson and directed with his usual forcefulness by Richard Donner, Tyrrell plays a girl suspected in the Menendez-type killing of her parents. Acquitted in court, she transfers to Jefferson High and finds herself ostracized and whispered about by everyone, even the teachers, except of course for the gallant Mr. Novak. It doesn’t help that Tyrrell’s character is cold and brilliant – there’s an amazing scene where she rips some twerpy boy’s interpretation of Billy Budd to shreds.
At nineteen, Tyrrell understood that the idea worked better if her character remained unbowed and aloof; she never softens and courts the viewer’s sympathy. Donner knew what he had in his star and frames her in a series of lengthy, beautifully lit, close-ups, many of them in full or three-quarter profile, one in a darkened hallway with Tyrrell’s heavy-cheekboned face dominating the left and Mr. Novak (James Franciscus) shrunken and out of focus on the left. The good directors did that all the time in the fifties and sixties, but it’s hard to think of many television shows today (even the best ones) that have the courage to let an important scene play out on an uninterrupted talking head.
I don’t know what Tyrrell was doing between 1964 and 1971 – she has many theater credits in that period, but it’s still weird for an actor to disappear from the screen so thoroughly and then re-emerge so triumphantly. I also wonder if there are other, unnoticed television appearances from her spurt in 1964. Commercials, soap operas, Divorce Court? There are still plenty of uncharted regions on the TV history map.