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Inga Swenson, Actress on Broadway and Gretchen the Cook on ‘Benson,’ Dies at 90

Inga Swenson, the two-time Tony-nominated singer and actress who as the dictatorial German cook Gretchen Kraus sparred with Robert Guillaume‘s character on the 1980s ABC sitcom Benson, has died. She was 90.  

Swenson died Sunday night of natural causes in hospice care in Los Angeles, her son, Mark Harris, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Swenson also sparkled in two critically acclaimed 1962 films released seven weeks apart — as the mother of Helen Keller (Patty Duke) in Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (1962) and as the wife of a U.S. senator with a dark secret (Don Murray) in Otto Preminger’s political thriller Advise & Consent (1962).

On the strength of those performances, the Nebraska native — no, she was not born in Germany — was cast in 1963 as the spinster Lizzy in 110 in the Shade, based on N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker. She received a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical for that performance, then landed another for her turn as Sherlock Holmes foe Irene Adler in the Hal Prince-directed Baker Street a year later.

In 1978, Swenson showed up midway through the first season of the ABC comedy Soap as Ingrid Svenson, the Swedish birth mother of Corinne Tate (Diana Canova). When Guillaume, who portrayed the scene-stealing butler Benson DuBois on that series, was given a spinoff, Swenson came along to play Gretchen, a German immigrant.

The statuesque Swenson and Guillaume worked alongside each other inside the governor’s mansion for seven seasons (1979-86), and she received Emmy noms in 1980, ’82 and ’85 for her work. A running gag had Benson insulting Gretchen under his breath, only to have her bellow, “I hear you!”

Before the Susan Harris-created Soap and Benson, “I never had any interest in sitcoms because I lacked all the qualities,” she explained in a 1983 interview. “I walk into a casting office and sit down with my knees together. People take one look and say, ‘You’re not funny. You don’t even have a funny face.’”

Inga Swenson

Inga Swenson as Irene Adler and Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes in ‘Baker Street’ on Broadway. Photofest

Born in Omaha on Dec. 29, 1932, Swenson was 15 when her father, an attorney and Swedish consul who was knighted by King Gustav V, died in a car accident. She graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1950, then studied under famed acting teacher Alvina Krause at Northwestern University.

“When she was on stage in a supporting role, other, more colorful actresses, faded out; attention always went to a tall, quietly beautiful girl seemingly doing nothing to achieve focus,” Krause wrote about her pupil in 1962. “How she acted was a mystery: she used no tricks of characterization, no incomparable vocal eccentricities: there was nothing in her work to label ‘theatrical,’ no moments of bravura acting. Yet she invariably wove her spell.”

A trained lyric soprano, Swenson made her Broadway debut in New Faces of 1956 (alongside, among others, Maggie Smith), then trained with Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof and Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio.

She won a Theatre World Award in 1957 for her turn opposite Walter Slezak in The First Gentleman, starred in Romeo and Juliet and other productions for the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, and served as Julie Andrews’ standby for Guenevere in Camelot on Broadway.

In portraying Lizzy in 110 in the Shade, Swenson followed Geraldine Page and Katharine Hepburn, who played the character in The Rainmaker on Broadway in 1954-55 and in the 1956 Paramount film version, respectively.

In 1965, she starred as Adler opposite Fritz Weaver as Holmes in Baker Street, which was written by written by Jerome Coopersmith and featured music from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. Three years later, she portrayed Eliza in a City Center revival of My Fair Lady.

Swenson also played the mother of Hoss (Dan Blocker) on Bonanza, the younger sister of Rose (Betty White) on The Golden Girls, the matriarch of a wealthy Pennsylvania family on two North & South miniseries and a nun in Lipstick (1976).

In addition to her son, an assistant editor with credits including Blues Brothers 2000 and Digging to China, survivors include her husband, singer-actor Lowell Harris (West Side Story), whom she married in February 1953, and her granddaughter, Lily. 

Another son, James, died at age 26 in a motorcycle accident in 1987.

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