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Actress Alice Ghostley


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Actress Alice Ghostley

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Actress Alice Ghostley, seen in 1952

LOS ANGELES, California -- Alice Ghostley, the Tony Award-winning actress best known on television for playing Esmeralda on "Bewitched" and Bernice on "Designing Women," died Friday, September 21 at her home in Studio City after a long battle with colon cancer and a series of strokes, longtime friend Jim Pinkston said. She was 81.

Ghostley made more than 90 television appearances in a career that spanned six decades. She was a regular on the situation comedy, "Bewitched," from 1966 through 1972, playing Esmeralda, a shy, bumbling witch whose spells never worked, who caused unintentional havoc whenever she sneezed and who turned invisible when she became nervous.

From 1986 through 1993, she played a more-than-usually wacky neighbor, Bernice Clifton, on the hit show, "Designing Women." In one episode, plastic surgery gone awry gives her a pig's nose, which she wears with aplomb, then with mounting embarrassment until it is repaired. She also appeared in "Evening Shade," "Love, American Style" and "Mayberry R.F.D."

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Alice Ghostley, (top row, far left), posing with the combined cast

of 'Designing Women'

While essentially a comic actress, Ghostley first attracted notice when she made her debut in the Broadway revue, "Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952." The revue helped start the careers of Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence. Ghostley's big moment was her rendering of the song, "The Boston Beguine," a sendup of proper Bostonians which became her signature song.

Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, said part of Ghostley's charm was that she was not glamorous. "She was rather plain and had a splendid singing voice, and the combination of the well-trained, splendid singing voice and this kind of dowdy homemaker character was so incongruous and so charming."

In the 1960s, Ghostley earned high accolades from her work on The Great White Way stage. In 1963, she received a Tony Nomination for her various characterizations in the Broadway comedy, "The Beauty Part," a fantasy by S. J. Perelman.

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Alice Ghostley as Esmeralda in 'Bewitched'

In 1965, Ghostley eventually won a Tony for Best Featured Actress for her performance in the drama, "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window." The playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, also authored "A Raisin in the Sun." Ghostley played the conventional sister of the show's star, Rita Moreno.

However, Ghostley was primarily known for her work on the small screen. From 1969 to 1972, she played the good witch and ditzy housekeeper Esmeralda on TV's "Bewitched." She played Bernice Clifton on "Designing Women" from 1987 to 1993, for which she earned an Emmy nomination in 1992.

Alice Margaret Ghostley was born on August 14, 1926, in Eve, Missouri, where her father worked as a telegraph operator. She grew up in Henryetta, Oklahoma. After graduating from high school, Ghostley attended the University of Oklahoma but dropped out and moved to New York with her sister to pursue theater.

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Alice Ghostley (far right) in a scene from the sitcom, 'Dharma &

Greg,' with series co-stars Thomas Gibson and Jenna Elfman.

Ghostley appeared in 30 films, including "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Graduate," "Gator" and "Grease." While she never won an Oscar, she did accept one, standing in for her friend and fellow "New Faces" alumna Maggie Smith in 1970, who was named Best Actress for her starring role in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

"The best job I had then was as a theater usher," she said in a 1990 Boston Globe interview. "I saw the plays for free. What I saw before me was a visualization of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be."

She was well aware of the types of roles she should pursue. "I knew I didn't look like an ingenue," she told The Globe in an interview. "My nose was too long. I had crooked teeth. I wasn't blond. I knew I looked like a character actress. But I also knew I'd find a way."

She is survived by her sister, Gladys. Her husband, the actor Felice Orlandi, died in 2003.

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