Jan Maxwell, a supremely gifted comic actress whose five Tony Award nominations included two in the same season, died today of cancer, her son, William Maxwell-Lunny, confirmed. She was 61.
Maxwell was both talented and beloved, known for her professionalism and timing, whether it was for a sly patrician snarl or a bit of business put over with minimum exaggeration for maximum effect. Her notable musical comedy performances included roles in Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies (which also ran in Los Angeles), the Sherman brothers’ Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. She most recently appeared as Hester Ferris in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation. Her many television series appearances included recurring roles on CBS’ Brain Dead and The Good Wife and WE’s The Divide.
Maxwell earned Tony nominations for her performances in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005), Coram Boy (2007), Lend Me a Tenor and The Royal Family (2010) and Follies (2012).
Maxwell also was one of countless New York stage actors who found crucial employment and paychecks in Dick Wolf’s Gotham-based cop procedurals, beginning with Law & Order. In a 2010 Op-Ed for The New York Times, she wrote, “We claimed the show as our own; not only did it give us stage actors a temporary job, but it also employed old theater pros, like Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston, in leading roles.” Some 700 speaking roles, she said, “played by actors from all walks of New York life, were doled out yearly by what we eventually called ‘the mother ship.’ “
In the final paragraph, she described a scene with Waterston that had begun conventionally. “But then, he turns and walks away into one of the most beautiful New York snowfalls I’ve ever seen,” Maxwell wrote. “At that moment I fell in love with the city all over again, and with the show, too. It reminded me that for New York theater actors, Law & Order did more than just pay for dinner. It was a part of our family.”
In addition to her son, Maxwell is survived by her husband, playwright and actor Robert Emmet Lunney.