Malibu Actress Nan Martin

Special to The Malibu Times

Veteran actress of stage, television and the movie screen, Nan Martin, died Feb. 25. She was 82.

The longtime Malibu resident was married to local architect Harry Gesner, profiled several times by this paper and Malibu Times Magazine, and had two children, sons Casey Dolan (with her first husband, film composer Robert Emmett Dolan), who is a musician and writer, and actor Zen Gesner.

“I think my mother probably had the longest resume of any working actress in Hollywood,” Dolan said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times. “She starred in every major TV show since 1960 and worked with so many famous actors, I can’t name them. But she always felt that theater was really the most natural acting experience and the essence of her craft.”

Nan Martin was born in Decatur, Illinois but grew up in Santa Monica. She studied theater at UCLA where she gained attention for student productions and met Robert Dolan, then a film producer and composer, who urged her to sign a contract with Fox Studios.

“Mom met with Zanuck, but she really pooh-poohed the idea of working in movies,” Dolan said. “She thought it was a desecration of her craft.”

Instead, she went to New York, where she studied at the Actors’ Lab and the Max Reinhardt School, and became a founding member of the famed Actors’ Studio. She made her Broadway debut in “A Story for a Sunday Evening” in 1950, was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” (directed by Elia Kazan) and originated several Broadway roles, including in productions of “Under the Yum Yum Tree” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.”

Martin was also a mainstay of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater summer Shakespeare productions, performing Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” (opposite George C. Scott), Gertrude in “Hamlet” and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

In the early 1960s, President Kennedy appointed Martin to an arts advisory committee for a Ford Foundation cultural exchange program under the Department of State. This job led to international travel at the same time she was supporting the efforts of national regional theater. She worked at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, Houston’s Alley Theatre and helped inaugurate the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum, performing in “The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi” in 1967.

Her performances with South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa brought her Drama-Logue Awards for Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca” (for which she won the Helen Hayes Award in a separate production at the Kennedy Center), “Odd Jobs” and “Once in Arden.” Other Southland performances included principal roles in “All My Sons,” “The Sea Gull” and “Buried Child.”

But Martin would not be able to escape Hollywood and gave indelible performances, as Ali McGraw’s snobbish mother in “Goodbye Columbus” and in “Toys in the Attic” with Dean Martin. She regularly appeared in “Movies of the Week” and dozens of episodic television programs.

Today’s audiences will remember Martin best for her regular appearances on “The Drew Carey Show” and guest spots in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Nip/Tuck,” “The Practice,” “E.R.,” “The Golden Girls” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Her last role was in the television movie “Mrs. Harris” with Annette Bening in 2005.

Martin married Gesner in 1969 and they have resided in Malibu since 1971.

Although she had been suffering from emphysema and was bedridden the past few years, Dolan said he will always remember his mother as a vital proponent of all things theatrical, teaching acting at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum and never having lost her youthful qualities.

“When I was small, we always called her the Christmas Girl because she loved the lights and decorations of Christmas,” Dolan said. “Even with the heavier roles she would play, she always had this childlike quality and was crazy and imaginative. That was the real Nan Martin.”

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