Inga Swenson, Who Went From Stage to ‘Benson,’ Dies at 90

by Joe Holman
Inga Swenson, Who Went From Stage to ‘Benson,’ Dies at 90

Inga Swenson, whose acting talent, striking looks and versatile singing voice brought her success on the Broadway stage in the 1950s and ’60s, and who years later rode a phony German accent to sitcom stardom as the cook on the long-running sitcom “Benson,” died on July 23 at a care facility in Los Angeles. She was 90.

The Television Academy posted news of her death.

Ms. Swenson, who studied theater at Northwestern University, started out as a stage actress. In 1953 and 1954 she and her husband, Lowell Harris, whom she had met and married while at Northwestern, appeared in productions at the Playhouse, Eagles Mere, in north central Pennsylvania, including Clifford Odets’s “The Country Girl,” in which they played a husband and wife.

In November 1954 Ms. Swenson made her New York debut with an Off Broadway troupe called the Shakespearewrights, playing Olivia in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

“I had these gorgeous gowns because I was fun to costume,” Ms. Swenson told the podcast “Behind the Curtain: Broadway’s Living Legends” in 2019. “They loved a 5-foot-10 skinny woman with narrow shoulders.”

That performance landed her an agent, and in 1956 she made her Broadway debut in the musical revue “New Faces of 1956.” Also in the cast was Maggie Smith, who was just beginning her storied career.

Ms. Swenson’s biggest Broadway success came in 1963 when she was cast in a leading role in “110 in the Shade,” which had music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, the duo responsible for the long-running musical “The Fantasticks.” The book was by N. Richard Nash, based on his play “The Rainmaker.” Ms. Swenson was Lizzie Curry, a supposedly average-looking young woman who is beginning to think she will never find love.

“The tears seem to fall interminably from the big blue eyes of Inga Swenson,” Howard Taubman wrote in his review in The New York Times, “who has to pretend that she is Lizzie, the plain Curry girl, too honest to use female wiles and too homely to attract a man. It’s quite a job of make-believe for Miss Swenson, who is attractive and talented.”

The show ran for 330 performances, then went on the road. It earned Ms. Swenson a Tony Award nomination for best actress in a musical. It also pitted her against the Broadway hitmaker David Merrick, who produced the show.

“110 in the Shade” ended with an onstage rainstorm, and during the curtain call at a performance in April 1964 Ms. Swenson slipped on a puddle and seriously injured an ankle. The injury troubled her for months afterward, and she filed a million-dollar lawsuit against Mr. Merrick, contending that the puddle was a result of faulty set construction.

Later that year, when the show traveled to San Francisco, she told The San Francisco Examiner that she and Mr. Merrick remained friends and that the suit was aimed not at him but at his insurance company. How the matter was resolved is lost in the mists of time.

In any case, Ms. Swenson returned to Broadway in 1965 in “Baker Street,” a musical Sherlock Holmes yarn, earning another Tony nomination for best actress in a musical. By that point she had also begun working occasionally in the movies, including roles in “Advise & Consent” in 1962 and “The Miracle Worker,” in which she played the mother of Helen Keller, Patty Duke’s character, the same year.

In 1978 she landed a recurring role in a season of the television comedy “Soap,” and when the same producing team was casting the sitcom “Benson,” a “Soap” spinoff whose title character (played by Robert Guillaume) ran a governor’s household, she auditioned, using a German accent.

“I went in there, read with an accent and they fell off their chairs,” she said on the podcast. She won the role of Gretchen Kraus, a cook and perpetual thorn in Benson’s side. The show ran for eight seasons, and Ms. Swenson was nominated for the supporting-actress Emmy three times.

Inga Swenson was born on Dec. 29, 1932, in Omaha to A.C.R. and Geneva Swenson. Her father was a prominent lawyer and an honorary Swedish consul, and her mother was prominent in social circles in Omaha.

Her parents attended a Congregational church that had five choirs, and her performing life began when she tried out for one as a child, impressing church officials.

“They learned that I had a pretty voice and I could make the parishioners weep,” she said on the podcast.

Her father died in a car crash in 1948. Soon after, she landed the role of Maid Marian in her high school’s production of the operetta “Robin Hood,” which helped her through her grief.

“Giving me that role saved my life,” she said. “I had something to do. I had something to think about. I had people telling me I was wonderful.”

Fifteen years later, her singing was good enough to get her cast in “110 in the Shade,” despite some tough competition.

“Everybody wanted to play Lizzie,” she said on “Behind the Curtain.” “When I went to audition, Barbra Streisand was there.”

Ms. Swenson’s survivors include her husband and a son, Mark Harris.

Ms. Swenson said she didn’t often get considered for comic roles because of her elegant looks.

“People take one look and say: ‘You’re not funny,’” she said in a 1983 interview. “‘You don’t even have a funny face.’”

She proved such assessments wrong on “Benson,” which was filmed in front of a live audience.

“That was not phony laughter,” she said on “Behind the Curtain.” “There wasn’t a sign that went up and said ‘Laugh.’ People laughed because we were funny.”

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