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My So-Called Rotten Life 

Susan Tyrrell’s sentimental journey through money, fame, sex and amputation

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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Photo by Anne FishbeinIn late April of this year, after taking an unexpected fall, then finding herself unable to stand up and walk again, actress Susan Tyrrell was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where extensive diagnostic tests revealed she had something called “essential thrombocythemia,” a rare disease in which the bone marrow produces an overabundance of platelets in the blood, which may cause sudden and severe clotting in the extremities. Only one case in 100,000 is diagnosed each year, an incidence far too rare to be spotted during normal medical checkups. Moreover, the clotting had been steadily worsening for some time, undetected, choking off the circulation.

Four days later, Tyrrell had both legs amputated below the knee. She remained in a semicomatose state for several days, hovering near death, and spent much of the next three months in institutional recuperation — at least part of it in the fabled Susan Lucci Suite at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills. She was forced to move from her longtime Echo Park hillside compound because she could no longer negotiate the stairs, and currently faces staggering medical debts.

SuSu, as Tyrrell insists on being addressed by friend and interviewer alike — diminutive, elfin, a reluctant gamine with a vocabulary on her that would peel the blush off a sailor — is widely remembered today for her role as the drunken boxer’s moll in John Huston’s Fat City, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1972. Like Goldie Hawn, Karen Black or now, perhaps, Mira Sorvino, she received her strongest accolades at the very start of her career, where, like youth itself, they were squandered on the young. Yet far from slipping into formula comedies, self-parody or tabloid romances — those tragic concessions that pay the bills and perpetuate the limelight, but scour the soul — Tyrrell, over the course of 30 years, in some 60 films, has continued to work, largely as a character actress. She’s the infant’s mewling mother in Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977), Bukowski’s Method barfly in the Italian production Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983), Hemingway’s whorehouse madam in Islands in the Stream (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1977), and Doris, Queen of the Sixth Dimension, in the seldom-seen Richard and Danny Elfman musical Forbidden Zone (1980). She has acted in films by Amos Poe (1981’s Subway Riders), Paul Verhoeven (1985’s Flesh + Blood) and John Waters (1990’s Cry-Baby), as well as her share of cult items, from erstwhile Kubrick/Polanski producer James B. Harris’ prison drama Fast-Walking (1982), to Bill Fishman’s hipster indie Tapeheads (1988), to Randal Kleiser’s Tim Burton follow-up Big Top Pee-wee (1988), to Victor Salva’s beleaguered Powder (1995), to a 1974 rock & roll version of Othello called Catch My Soul (a.k.a. Santa Fe Satan), directed by The Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan. A member of the prestigious Lincoln Center repertory company in the ’60s and early ’70s, and a stage fixture on both coasts throughout her four-decade career, she was last seen in the independent film Buddy Boy (Mark Hanlon, 2000), in which she played, ironically, a shrieking one-legged harridan.

More than anything else, though, Tyrrell’s life has been an ongoing travelogue — through money, poverty, fame, obscurity, East Coast bohemia (Warhol, Amos Poe), West Coast bohemia (Forbidden Zone, Silver Lake royalty), and vicissitudes of character in the noblest and most pejorative senses. Born into the industry (her father was a prominent agent at William Morris), she has fled from stardom more than once, on rarefied paths along which she stockpiled a lifetime’s worth of world-class stories. And she has become one of L.A.’s genuine eccentrics — Norma Desmond and Norma Jean rolled into one — a life she recorded in her 1989 one-woman play, titled My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta. (Tyrrell has also written two unproduced screenplays: an adaptation of My Rotten Life, and Santa Lana’s, For Your Pleasure, which she describes as “a cross between Night of the Iguana and Freaks,” as well as parts of a memoir, Wait Till You Get There, with the late D. Montgomery.)

According to Tyrrell, Pauline Kael once referred to her as an entire school of acting (this was not intended as a compliment), and Rex Reed wrote, “She has a body like an unmade bed.” Andy Warhol, himself no slouch in the out-all-night department, claims in The Warhol Diaries that his favorite party ever was the one Tyrrell threw at the Hancock Park mansion she shared in the early ’80s with an aerospace engineer and a singing cowboy, where she spiked the punch with LSD and stayed up cooking ’round the clock for three days. During rehearsals for Camino Real at Lincoln Center in the late ’60s, Tennessee Williams once confided to her, “My favorite actors are 50 percent male and 50 percent female. You, my dear, are neither.”

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