Florence Stanley

Florence Stanley

Rest In Peace

July 1, 1924 - Oct. 3, 2003

Due to the nature of the acting "business," Ms. Stanley – because television provides by far the greatest exposure – became known essentially as an actor who could make you laugh.  Someone once said that "only the truth is funny" – and Ms. Stanley demonstrated this profound truth over and over.  She got laughs that even the writers didn’t know were there.  It began in the ‘70s with Barney Miller and Fish.  These shows had a vast audience that established her, and almost all of Ms. Stanley’s subsequent TV employment exploited her effortless approach to comedy.

What a much smaller audience, the theatre audience, realized long before Barney Miller was that Ms. Stanley could also break your heart.  As Clytemnestra, the classic vengeful mother of Electra – Electra by Sophocles, written in ancient Greece – she was hailed in New York for showing the human being behind this woman’s deep, deep need for vengeance. Clytemnestra’s pain illuminated the woman in a way that contemporary audiences had never seen.  This was in 1964 for the New York Shakespeare Festival (with Lee Grant as Electra).

She brought that depth to her performance as Juliet’s Nurse in the Seattle Rep’s Romeo and Juliet.  The Nurse, who had always been played for bawdy comic relief, was more than that for Ms. Stanley. The comedy of course was there.  With Ms. Stanley, how could it not be?  But what she understood in her soul was the real relationship between the Nurse and Juliet.  A nurse in Juliet’s time was a wet nurse, most likely a poor nursing mother who lost her baby and was then hired by a noble family to relieve the noble mother of the messy need to suckle.  Can you imagine then the depth of love in this nurse for Juliet?  Daniel Sullivan, the director of the production, saw what Ms. Stanley was bringing to the character, staged the final scene in a way that had never in anyone’s recollection been staged before: After all the family had left the crypt, only the Nurse stood alone on stage, unable to move, unable to cry, unable to deal with the horror that has befallen this child.  Finally, slowly, she turned and, slowly, she walked off stage – and the play ended.

Just two examples of many.

A comedienne? Yes. A tragedienne? Yes. A rare, rare talent, and we mourn her loss.

Though she is probably most well-known for her sweet and vulnerable portrayal of Bernice Fish on both Barney Miller and its spin-off Fish, Florence Stanley began her professional career after graduating from Northwestern University when she traveled to Germany as a Civilian Actress Technician (part of US Army Special Services) just after World War II.  There she toured in The Cat and the Canary, as well as directing touring musical entertainment productions.  When she returned to the states, she toured the US as a member of Touring Players in The Importance of Being Earnest. 1948 brought her to New York City where she performed at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre in Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead, and there she met fellow cast member Martin Newman, her future husband.

Ms. Stanley made constant television appearances during the 1950's, live television's "golden age," and in 1964 gave an acclaimed performance in the NY Shakespeare Festival's production of Sophocles' Electra opposite Lee Grant.  She began her Broadway career as an understudy (and performing) for Maureen Stapleton in the 1965 revival of The Glass Menagerie.

In 1966, Ms. Stanley joined the Broadway cast of Fiddler on the Roof, replacing Beatrice Arthur nine months into its run as Yente the Matchmaker.  She left Fiddler in 1971 – after over 2,000 performances – to open in Mike Nichols' Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and later recreated her role in the film version as well.  She left Prisoner in 1972 when she was given an opportunity to tap dance in the  Broadway production of The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild.

Having appeared in the film Up the Down Staircase with Sandy Dennis in 1967, Florence Stanley began to get more calls from Hollywood in 1973 when Mike Nichols called her for a small role in his film Day of the Dolphin, which was followed by the film version of Prisoner (1975), Mike Nichols' The Fortune (1975) with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, and the series Joe and Sons (1975) for CBS.  It was also in 1975 that Barney Miller producer Danny Arnold tapped Ms. Stanley to play the wife of Detective Fish, launching her talent into millions of hearts and homes.

A rather thorough list of her television and movie credits can be found at www.imdb.com.

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