Actress Doris Belack, known for ‘Tootsie’ and TV roles, dies at 85
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Actress Doris Belack, known for ‘Tootsie’ and TV roles, dies at 85

(JTA) — Character actress Doris Belack, whose stern demeanor earned her numerous roles as a judge, mayor, physician and other authority figures on TV and in movies, died Oct. 9 in New York at 85. Her death came four months after that of her husband, noted Broadway producer Philip Rose.

Belack’s most notable recurring role in legal robes was as Judge Margaret Barry, on several versions of the “Law & Order” series in the 1990s, but she also appeared as a judge on “Family Ties,” “Cosby,” and “Lifestory: Families in Crisis.” She portrayed Capt. Florence Baker, the lead character, in the short-lived 1982 New York police drama, “Baker’s Dozen.”

She initiated the role of Anna Wolek, on the daytime soap opera, “One Life to Live,” when it premiered in July 1968. Other TV series in which she performed included, “The Patty Duke Show,” “The Defenders,” and “Barney Miller.”

One of her most-praised roles, “for the comic lightness with which she reinforced the film’s feminist themes,” was as Rita Marshall, the “tough-minded TV producer” in the 1982 film “Tootsie” who unwittingly cast Dustin Hoffman, disguised in women’s clothes, in a woman’s role in a soap opera.

Her recurring roles as an authority figure “tapped into one side of Ms. Belack: she expected dinner guests to arrive punctually and maintained an Old World sense of propriety that she occasionally enforced with an acerbic wit,” the New York Times said.

“With her long, saturnine face and hard dark eyes, Ms. Belack was adept at portraying tough, skeptical characters, often with an edge of humor,” the Broadway magazine, Playbill, wrote. Playbill’s article included a lengthy list of her theatrical roles, Variety covered her film work, and Soap Opera Network focused on her TV performances.

Early in her career, Belack appeared with Sidney Poitier on the 1955 record album, “Poetry of the Negro,” later renamed, “Sidney Poitier Reads Poetry of the Black Man,” which her husband, Rose, produced. A 1969 New York Times article described Belack’s reading of the Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son,” on the album as “especially memorable.”

Doris Belack was born in New York City to Isaac and Bertha Belack, immigrants from Russia. After high school she began acting in summer theaters and soon afterward met Rose, an actor at the time. The two were married for 65 years and worked together on several of Rose’s groundbreaking efforts at producing plays on Broadway with African American casts and themes.

“She not only supported the idea (of producing “Raisin in the Sun”), she worked and supported them both while Philip went around raising money to produce” the play, said actress and playwright Elizabeth Perry. “She was a strong liberal voice, and she had a lot of influence over his choices.”

Her final film roles were in “Prime,” in 2005, “Delirious” in 2006, and “Arranged,” in 2008. She also voiced characters in the video games, “True Crime: New York City” and “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

At her core, she once said, was her passion for acting. “You can’t act, you mustn’t act, you shouldn’t act, unless it’s the only thing in the world you want to do,” she said in 1979.

A public commemoration of hers and Rose’s lives is scheduled for October 17 at the Ambassador Theater in New York.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org