Shirley Booth, an actress whose warmth and versatility brought her acclaim on stage, screen and television, died on Friday at her home in North Chatham, Mass. She was 94 years old.
She died after a brief illness, said David Hunt of the Nickerson Funeral Home in Chatham, who announced her death yesterday.
Miss Booth was celebrated for never giving a bad performance. She portrayed many quick-witted women with acerbic tongues, but gained her greatest recognition for playing an ingratiating but drab, garrulous housewife clinging to wistful illusions in "Come Back, Little Sheba."
In "Sheba," she captivated audiences as Lola Delaney opposite Sidney Blackmer in William Inge's 1950 Broadway play, and then co-starred with Burt Lancaster in the 1952 movie version. Miss Booth's portrayals of a woman struggling to cope with her husband's alcoholism and their barren life together garnered every dramatic award, including a Tony and an Oscar.'I Like My Work'
In a lighter vein, on television, the actress played the title role of an irrepressible maid on "Hazel" from 1961 to 1966, for which she received two Emmys. When associates deplored her doing the sitcom as demeaning her talents, she gently took issue with them. "Why not enjoy Hazel's success?" she said to a colleague. "I'm as pleased as I can be. I like my work."
She said the only other work she might enjoy as much as acting was interior decorating. For many years, she enjoyed remodeling her Manhattan apartment and 1810 cottage in Cape Cod, Mass.
In 1973, Miss Booth starred in a second television sitcom as a perky widow in "A Touch of Grace." Thirty years earlier, on radio, she had been a wisecracking cashier, Miss Duffy, on "Duffy's Tavern."In Praise of Talents
She learned her craft by performing in 600 plays in stock companies before she appeared in some 40 plays on Broadway and in a few movies. On the stage she was a gangster's moll in "Three Men on a Horse" (1935), an inquisitive photographer in "The Philadelphia Story" (1939), a caustic writer in "My Sister Eileen" (1940), an anti-fascist teacher in "Tomorrow the World" (1943) and an exuberant gossip columnist in "Hollywood Pinafore" (1945).
Also on Broadway, Miss Booth was an urbane secretary in "Goodbye My Fancy" (1948), a freewheeling aunt in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1951), a romantic tourist in "The Time of the Cuckoo" (1952) and an ingratiating researcher in "The Desk Set" (1955).
Her films included "About Mrs. Leslie" (1954), "Hot Spell" (1958) and Thornton Wilder's "Matchmaker" (1958).
In comedies and musicals as well as dramas, reviews of her performances resembled love letters. The New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson, reviewing a 1954 Broadway musical, "By the Beautiful Sea," wrote that Miss Booth's acting "radiates all through a large theater and draws an audience close together."
"The stage begins to glow the moment she steps on it and the audience melts, like a crowd of children whose imagination has been captured by someone they trust," he continued. "No one else in the theater has made native decency so human, so triumphant and so captivating."
The actress was born in Manhattan to the former Virginia Wright and Albert J. Ford, a business executive. The young Thelma Booth Ford attended public schools in Brooklyn and Hartford, and dropped out at 14 to seek a stage career, despite angry opposition by her father.
She made her first professional appearance in 1921 in Hartford in a thriller, "The Cat and the Canary," and appeared in stock theater in New Haven for more than a year, under the name Shirley Booth. She made her Broadway debut in "Hell's Bells" in 1925, along with another newcomer, Humphrey Bogart, and then interspersed stock engagements with short-lived Broadway plays for a decade.For Room and Breakfast
She gained notice in New York by appearing in skits by Dorothy Parker at the Barbizon-Plaza Hotel in return for a room and breakfast. The performances led George Abbott, the producer and playwright, to give her the ingenue's role in "Three Men on a Horse." The comedy's two-year run elevated her from stock and led Mr. Abbott to remark, "I have worked with more actresses than I can count, and to me Shirley is easily tops."
Appraising her own views on acting, Miss Booth said: "I'm lucky. I play characters, not types. I don't care what the part is as long as it's a person I'm interested in, someone I want to introduce to people."
In an interview in 1971, she said: "I'd rather have affection than admiration. Affection is warmer and it lasts longer. I love a good critic. I don't care if he pans me, if he does it elegantly."
Miss Booth was married to Ed Gardner, the Archie of "Duffy's Tavern," from 1929 until their divorce in 1942. Her second husband, William H. Baker Jr., an artist and farmer, died of heart disease in 1951.
She is survived by a sister, Jean Coe of Los Angeles.