NEW YORK — Phyllis Newman, a Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran who became the first woman to host “The Tonight Show” before turning her attention to fight for women’s health, has died. She was 86.
Newman’s son, Adam, said his mother died Sunday of complications in New York from a longtime lung disorder.
Newman won the 1962 Tony for best supporting actress in the musical “Subways Are for Sleeping,” where her costume consisted of a bath towel and which had lyrics co-written by her late husband, Adolph Green. She earned a second Tony Award nomination in 1987 for her performance in the Neil Simon play “Broadway Bound.”
She played Aunt Blanche in the Neil Simon play, then began a brief role in the ABC soap opera “One Life to Live.”
“I was supposed to do just five episodes of ‘One Life to Live,’” she told The Associated Press in 1988. “I played Renee Devine, an ex-madame from Las Vegas who dressed to kill. The character just took off.”
Her other Broadway credits include “On the Town,” ‘’Awake and Sing!” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” She was standby for Judy Holiday in “Bells Are Ringing” and replaced Barbara Harris in “The Apple Tree.”
Her television credits include starring opposite Alan Arkin in “100 Centre Street,” ‘’Oz,” “Coming of Age,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “thirtysomething” and “The Jury.” She was the first woman to be a guest host for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
Her films include “The Human Stain,” “It Had To Be You,” “For the Time Being, “A Price Above Rubies,” “The Beautician and the Beast,” “Mannequin,” “To Find a Man” and “Bye Bye Braverman.”
In later years she focused on fundraising and founded the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of the Actor’s Fund in 1996. Her work earned her the 2009 Isabelle Stevenson Award from the Tony Awards. She also hosted the annual benefit Breathless on Broadway to raise money for research to combat the lung disease pulmonary hypertension.
She started writing her autobiography, “Just in Time: Notes From My Life” after being diagnosed with breast cancer. “I started writing it because I didn’t want to talk about it. Not that it was a secret. After I had 50 pages down, Simon & Schuster bought it,” she said in 1988.
“Betty Ford was an example for me in talking about my illness. I’m getting some very terrific letters from women about it.”
Newman underwent one mastectomy and then had to have her second breast removed. She described it as “no way to treat a lady.”
Soon after her recovery she went back to work, first in a one-woman show, “The Madwoman of Central Park West” — which she co-authored with Arthur Laurents — then in “Broadway Bound.”
In addition to her journalist son, Newman is survived by her daughter Amanda, a Tony-nominated songwriter.