Famed actress and theatre alum Phyllis Somerville leaves a legacy

Phyllis Somerville spent almost four decades on the screen and stage performing critically acclaimed roles in major Hollywood and Broadway productions, but she never forgot where she got her start - the theatre department at the University of Northern Iowa.

Somerville, who graduated in 1966, died on July 16 at her home in Manhattan. She was 76.

Phyllis Jeanne Somerville was born on Dec. 12, 1943, in Iowa City. Her father, Paul, was a Methodist minister, and her mother, Lefa Mary Pash Somerville, was a librarian.

She lived in the Catskill Mountains for three years before her family moved to Traer, Iowa. In the eighth grade, they moved to Cresco, Iowa, where a dearth of plays in high school led her to speech and band.

Somerville transferred to UNI from Morningside College because it offered more theatre productions. After graduation, she completed a fellowship at Wayne State University and then moved to the Lower East Side in New York City, where she started a career that would last until her death.

And through it all, she maintained a connection with UNI, where she worked closely with former Theatre UNI faculty Stan Wood and John Dennis.

“UNI was very important to me,” Somerville told UNI in a 2007 interview. “Stan Wood was great.  Stan did the kind of teaching that 10- 20- 30-years later I would come up with a problem in a play, slap my forehead and think, 'Oh, that's what Stan meant.’ Now that's teaching." 

Dan Brietbach, director of development for the UNI Foundation met Somerville only once in 2017, but she made an immediate impression.

“It's hard not to be drawn to Phyllis. She had a personality and spirit that you wouldn't imagine could live in such a small person,” Brietbach said. “She was such an accomplished actress and really had the respect of all who have the opportunity to work with her. And that goes back to her college days with her theater friends and faculty. She greatly appreciated her UNI experience, and, in her own words, said it gave her a good foundation for the career she was able to build.”

UNI Theatre department head Eric Lange remembered Somerville’s passion for the theatre and the creative process.

“What a vivacious spirit,” Lange said. “When we met, I had only recently started as head of the department. She told me how important it was that our program make sure students went out and did summer theatre and other things to help them grow. We do place a lot of emphasis on helping students secure quality internship experiences.” 

Somerville, though rarely the lead, thrived in secondary roles and ensemble work. She began turning up on New York stages in the 1970s, making her Broadway debut in “Over Here!,” a musical about life on the home front during World War II. She was rarely idle over the next 45 years.

Ms. Somerville made her film debut in 1981 in a small role in “Arthur,” the Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli vehicle, and beginning in the early 1990s she turned up regularly on television, appearing in episodes of “NYPD Blue,” “The Sopranos,” “Kidnapped” and other series.

Her character, Marlene, was featured in all four seasons of “The Big C,” the acclaimed comic drama that starred Laura Linney as a cancer patient. Mary McNamara, a television critic at The Los Angeles Times, said that Somerville “inevitably steals every scene she’s in.”

More recently, she starred in the 2018 Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where she played Mrs. Dubose, and was among an ensemble cast in the 2019 movie “Poms” alongside Diane Keaton and Rhea Perlman.