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In Appreciation: Piper Laurie

Piper Laurie, a three-time Oscar nominee who excelled in roles fragile and fierce, including as Paul Newman’s disabled girlfriend in “The Hustler” and Sissy Spacek’s religiously fanatical mother in “Carrie,” and who memorably went incognito as a Japanese businessman on the TV series “Twin Peaks,” died Oct. 14 at a nursing facility in Los Angeles. She was 91.

Adept at losing herself in her characters, Ms. Laurie also performed one of the more notable vanishing acts in Hollywood: She largely disappeared from the screen during the 15 years between the two finest performances of her career, in “The Hustler” (1961) and “Carrie” (1976), both of which garnered Academy Award nominations.

She subsequently returned to acting and received a torrent of Emmy nominations, including for the hit miniseries “The Thorn Birds” and “Twin Peaks.” She also earned a supporting Oscar nod for “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), as a woman who resents her deaf daughter (played by Marlee Matlin).

Ms. Laurie’s abandonment of the film capital — for a quiet life of marble sculpting and breadmaking in Upstate New York — had its roots in a traumatic, gothic-tinged childhood that left her ill-equipped for the pressures of show business.

She had spent her high school years training with a prestigious Los Angeles theater group. But it was her red hair, pinup good looks and husky voice — even more than her precocious command of Tennessee Williams — that propelled her to a contract at 18 with Universal International Studios. She was dubbed Piper Laurie by a fanciful press agent who considered her given name — Rosetta Jacobs — too ethnic.

In a matter of years, she was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, but she saw her life as a gilded prison confining her to sex-and-sand costume dramas and lightweight farces opposite Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Ronald Reagan and Francis the Talking Mule.

Universal International denied her requests to play more complicated parts. Meanwhile, she endured endless cheesecake photo sessions, posing as Miss Mud Bath and Miss Milk Bath. At a low point, she was pressured in a publicity gambit to eat countless daffodil and carnation salads in front of reporters. To the public, she lamented, “I was a girl who ate flowers.”

In a fit of rage and shame, and over the pleas of her parents and her agent, she broke her lucrative contract in 1955 to take her chances on Broadway — only to find that the name Piper Laurie rang in producers’ ears like a bad joke.

After a year largely unemployed, she won over television producers with her commitment to shedding what she called her “glamorous bimbo” and “harem cutie” reputation. She played country girls and psychologically damaged young women and performed in live TV productions of George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and Maxwell Anderson’s “Winterset.”

No role better showcased her range and ambition than the hopelessly alcoholic wife in “Days of Wine and Roses” (1958), co-starring Cliff Robertson and directed by John Frankenheimer for the anthology series “Playhouse 90.”

To prepare for the part, Ms. Laurie attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, visited the Bellevue psychiatric hospital in New York, and frequented taverns on the Bowery, observing what she called the “almost balletic” body movements of drunken people.

“Miss Laurie’s performance was enough to make the flesh crawl, yet it also always elicited deep sympathy,” New York Times TV critic Jack Gould wrote. “Her interpretation of the young wife just a shade this side of delirium tremens — the flighty dancing around the room, her weakness of character and moments of anxiety and her charm when she was sober — was a superlative accomplishment. Miss Laurie is moving into the forefront of our most gifted young actresses.”

A string of similarly well-calibrated TV performances led to “The Hustler,” filmmaker Robert Rossen’s bleak study of a pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson (Newman) and the troubled young woman (Ms. Laurie) with a tragically misplaced love for him.

For Ms. Laurie, her Oscar nomination for best actress should have been a moment to savor. Instead, deep in the throes of mood swings exacerbated by amphetamine addiction, she was in a state of inconsolable misery. She stayed home during the Academy Awards celebration and was relieved, she said, when the Oscar went to Sophia Loren for the war drama “Two Women.”

Ms. Laurie said she continued to receive movie offers (“primarily sad or crippled girls”) but was uninterested in allowing herself to be stereotyped again. She settled in Woodstock, N.Y., with her new husband, theater and film critic Joe Morgenstern, began to break her drug addiction, adopted a daughter and focused on new artistic and culinary pursuits.

She said one of the proudest moments of her life came in 1972, when she was profiled in the Times food section for her dill bread loaf. Four years later, Brian De Palma approached her to make “Carrie,” based on the Stephen King book about a shy high school girl who uses telekinetic powers to exact revenge on her tormentors.

Ms. Laurie said she found the script “stupid” and accepted because of De Palma’s charm and her agreed upon fee of $10,000. She treated the film as satire, playing her final impaling by kitchen tools as a moment of religious ecstasy. To her shock, the film was a massive box-office hit, and she received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress (losing to Beatrice Straight for “Network”).

“I was a housewife and mother living in the woods of Woodstock, and I’m suddenly invited to come to Hollywood and have this romp, this vacation that I was being paid for — and then to get an Oscar nomination, it was just fabulous fun,” she told the Television Academy Foundation.

The role jump-started Ms. Laurie’s return, at age 44, to featured acting roles. She radiated a mature confidence in such films as “Tim” (1979), as an older woman in a romance with an intellectually disabled but beautiful young gardener (Mel Gibson, in his film debut).

Her prolific work in TV movies included “In the Matter of Karen Ann Quinlan” (1977), a right-to-die drama in which she played the mother of a young woman languishing in a coma; “The Bunker” (1981) as fervent Nazi Magda Goebbels opposite Anthony Hopkins’s Hitler; “The Thorn Birds” (1983) as the physically disabled Anne Mueller; and “Promise” (1986), as an ex-girlfriend of James Garner’s middle-aged bachelor.

She won an Emmy for her supporting role in “Promise,” but by many accounts her most compelling TV performance was on David Lynch’s macabre series “Twin Peaks” (1990). She played conniving mill owner Catherine Martell, who purportedly dies in a fire but comes back to spy on the town in the disguise of a Japanese businessman named Mr. Tojamura.

Lynch and Ms. Laurie, heavily made up and speaking in a low and indecipherable accent, conspired to hide from the cast the identity of the new actor, credited as one Fumio Yamaguchi. Ms. Laurie said the hardest part of the ruse was not bursting into laughter as everyone on set grew fascinated by this supposedly revered Japanese thespian.

She was born in Detroit on Jan. 22, 1932. Her father, a furniture salesman, was often absent. She once described her mother, prone to bursts of anger, as “a frustrated wild woman with a fantastic sense of humor and no outlet for it.” She also gave her two daughters amphetamines to control their weight.

Nearly debilitated by shyness, Ms. Laurie developed an anxiety disorder that left her almost mute. At 5, she was whisked by train to Southern California and dropped in a sanitarium for children to keep her asthmatic older sister company. Her only visitor was a grandfather who occasionally brought her gum. If she was on her best behavior, Ms. Laurie was allowed 15 minutes of radio on Saturday mornings.

“Three years of that life, with no touching, no hugging, creates a different kind of human being,” she told the Television Academy Foundation.

Her parents eventually settled in Los Angeles, where Ms. Laurie took elocution lessons that sparked a fascination with the power of language and the actors who delivered it. “It was so clear — the beauty, creativity, and especially the courage of the theater and the actors were what I wanted,” she wrote in her memoir, “Learning to Live Out Loud.”

Ms. Laurie debuted on-screen in “Louisa” (1950), opposite Reagan, with whom she had a brief affair after playing his daughter. A few years later, she broke off her engagement to hotel heir G. David Schine — less for his connections to the red-baiting Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) than because she savored her newfound professional and sexual freedom.

“The idea of marrying David — or anyone else — felt like death,” she wrote. “I still believed my creative life was ahead of me.”

Her marriage to Morgenstern ended in divorce. Survivors include their daughter, Anna Morgenstern.

Ms. Laurie toured for years in a one-woman show playing the writer Zelda Fitzgerald. Her greatest fulfillment came as a character actress, whether on film or TV. She earned Emmy nods for shows as varied as the medical drama “St. Elsewhere,” playing a stroke victim, and the sitcom “Frasier,” as the terrifyingly rigid mother of Christine Baranski’s conservative radio shrink.

Reflecting on why she became an actress, Ms. Laurie told the Chicago Tribune: “I remember moments with my sister at night, in the dark. She’d be in one bed, and I was in the other. And I was desperately asking questions about what it was like to be her. I always had that burning curiosity, that desire to understand what it was like to be someone else.”

Laurie, born in 1932, was groomed to be another ’50s starlet and had little interest in going through those motions. Yet in “The Hustler,” playing the limping alcoholic waif who Newman’s cocky but self-hating pool hustler “Fast” Eddie Felson meets in a desolate bus station (until “The Hustler,” you’d never seen a bus station in a movie look this much like a bus station), Laurie brought to the screen a lyrical neuroticism so authentic you weren’t sure whether you wanted to weep or try to get her therapist on the phone. Her delivery of a line like “I’m not drunk, I’m lame” was poetry. She achieved a heightened realism that pointed toward everything movies would be after the New Hollywood revolution. Laurie’s performance won her the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actress, and she received her first Oscar nomination, yet the role was so downbeat that the offers did not come pouring in. So she left, moving to Woodstock, NY, after marrying the film critic Joe Morgenstern.

Following the success of “Carrie,” Laurie became a born-again actress, appearing in dozens of roles on the big and small screen, earning attention for her ferocious turns on “Twin Peaks” and “The Thorn Birds” (she received a total of eight Emmy nominations, finally winning one in 1987 for “Promise”). She was one of those priceless actors who always knew how to use her simmering undercurrents to perk up a scene. Yet as good as she continued to be, it’s her two defining movie roles that achieved a larger-than-life quality. On Broadway in 1965, she played Laura in “The Glass Menagerie,” and her lost wastrel in “The Hustler” feels like a Laura who’d been let out into the world and couldn’t cope with it. Yet how telling is it that Margaret White, in “Carrie,” was like a heightened version of Laura’s destructive mother? Talk about a yin-and-yang. In these two roles, Piper Laurie circumscribed the experience of modern women who faced a world — or a force of parental oppression — that was only too eager to shut them down. In portraying that devastation so memorably, she let in the light.