Hollis Resnik, acclaimed Chicago stage actress, dead at 66

The 12-time winner of the Joseph Jefferson Award died Sunday at Swedish Covenant Hospital.

SHARE Hollis Resnik, acclaimed Chicago stage actress, dead at 66
Hollis Resnik.

Hollis Resnik.

Brandon Dahlquist

Hollis Resnik, a Chicago actress who made her home on musical theater stages in a host of memorable and critically acclaimed performances, has died. She was 66.

Ms. Resnik died Sunday at Swedish Covenant Hospital, where she had been hospitalized for the past week, according to the Rev. Jim Heneghan, a longtime friend, who said her ex-husband, musician Thomas Mendel, was at her side when she passed.

According to Heneghan, the actress had been looking ahead to a possible return to the concert stage this summer.

“She was moving gracefully into retirement, and she talked about doing concerts,” Heneghan said. “She was also looking into opportunities and parts in New York, but she didn’t want to fly there because of COVID concerns. She was at a point in her life where she could pick and choose and weigh her options carefully and take her time.”

Hollis Resnik as Norma Desmond in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard.”

Hollis Resnik as Norma Desmond in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 2019 production of “Sunset Boulevard.”|

Michael Courier

Her roles in musical theater included Fantine in “Les Misérables,” a role she made her own for nearly two years in national touring productions in the 1980s, Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha” at Court Theatre, Edith Beale in “Grey Gardens” at Northlight Theatre, the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Eva Peron in “Evita” at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, and, most recently, Norma Desmond in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Sunset Boulevard” in 2019.

“She always said ‘I’m a scrapper from Ohio and I worked for everything I got and I earned it,’ ” said actor-director E. Faye Butler. “And she made it. She was a star.”

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about the show, Ms. Resnik, a 12-time Joseph Jefferson Award winner, spoke of slowing the hectic pace of her career, hinting “Sunset Boulevard” might be her “last big musical.”

“Sure, I work less than I used to,” she said. “I’m not a movie star … That world is foreign to me. I’m pretty simple. There isn’t one role I’m dying to play. I’ve done enough.”

Resnik grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid, Ohio, and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Denison University in Ohio.

“Hollis was truly a Chicago legend,” said BJ Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre. “In our production of ‘Grey Gardens,’ she created two unforgettable Edie’s, vulnerable and indomitable. Her performance prompted playwright Doug Wright to say she made the role her own.”

She was a memorable Fräulein Schneider in a 2018 production of “Cabaret” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, said artistic director Jim Corti, radiating strength and conviction.

“I’ve never seen her cave, as an actor or as a human,” Corti said.

During the pandemic, Ms. Resnik phoned others in the theater community to check on how they were faring, Corti said.

“I am gutted and devastated by the passing of one of our talents,” Marriott Theatre executive producer Terry James said. “Hollis triumphed in productions of ‘Anything Goes,’ ‘Hairspray,’ ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Mame’ at Marriott Theatre. All of us have lost a dear friend and Chicago a legend.”

In a Facebook post Monday, the Sarah Siddons Society, which in 1992 awarded her its Leading Lady Award, said of Ms. Resnik: “She was a mainstay of Chicago stages and national tours, always delighting audiences.”

Ms. Resnik was “a star from the tip of her toes to the top of her head, but she was an actress and a craftswoman,” said singer-actor Kat Taylor, who performed with her in a national tour of “Les Miserables.” “When she was with you on that stage, she was generous to you as an actor. She told the story with you, and she worked with you.”

Michael Weber, artistic director of Porchlight Music Theatre, who directed Ms. Resnik in “Sunset Boulevard” and who had worked with her over the course of her career, including directing Resnik in one of her earliest roles, that of Kim McAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie” at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, said the actress was one of the most giving artists both onstage and off.

“She always challenged herself,” Weber said. “She wanted to play opposite the best people, people who were better than her. She loved mentoring young actors, directors, music directors.” Behind the scenes she would often quietly gift a theater with a generous check to help with the cost of costumes or scenery, he said.

Ms. Resnik loved playing Norma in “Sunset Boulevard,” Weber said. “It’s a role that many actresses don’t want to necessarily do because how many actresses want to play a fading, forgotten, formerly talented and now delusional movie star, and ‘what does that say about me?’. [Hollis] looked it square in the eye and said ‘I want to play this for all the Norma Desmonds out there.’”

“The struggle for actors today is to stay working until we can get our social security,” Resnik told the Reader in 2019 about taking on the role, which would turn out to be her last leading role on the stage, and about aging in the industry.

“The older you get, the fewer roles there are. It’s harder on women, easier on men,” Resnik said. “That’s just the nature of the beast. I accepted it a long time ago. I truly enjoy doing smaller character parts now, but — again — those roles get fewer and fewer.”

Ms. Resnik singled out a few career highlights in a 2018 interview with the Paramount Theatre, including working with Patti LuPone in “A Little Night Music” at the Ravinia Festival and a staging of “The Soldier’s Tale” at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

She also appeared in national tours of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Sister Act” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She had roles in the movie “Backdraft” and on TV in “Crime Story” and “The Untouchables.”

Weber noted the role that perhaps eluded Resnik in recent years was that of Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” “She so wanted to do that role; she shopped it around to a few theaters but there were no takers,” he said.

Of Norma Desmond, Ms. Resnik talked of finding freshness in the character’s famous lines like: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

“Theater’s always crackling,” she told the Sun-Times. “There’s always something new to be discovered.”

Ms. Resnik is survived by her parents Reginald and Betty Resnik, and her brothers Mark and Paul.

Arrangements are pending.

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