Eileen Heckart was a star of theatre, film and television. The Columbus native was born Anna Eileen Heckart on March 29, 1919.
Heckart’s son, Luke Yankee, said that even after his mother rose to fame, she was still known as Anna Eileen when she visited Columbus. “She didn’t like the name very much,” Luke said. “She thought it was awkward.” Close friends called him “Heckie”.
Heckart graduated from Bexley High School in 1937 and attended Ohio State University, graduating in 1942. While attending OSU, she caught whooping cough, which she chose to ignore. The result of this action was the permanent deepening of his voice.
After graduating, she married her college sweetheart, John Harrison “Jack” Yankee Jr. The couple were married for 53 years and had three sons, Mark, Philip and Luke. John Yankee died in 1997.
Heckart began her professional acting career in summer theater and later starred in live television “kitchen dramas” including “The Alcoa Hour”, “Philco Television Playhouse”, and “Goodyear Playhouse”.
His first big breakthrough came in the piece “Picnic”, which was followed by performances in the productions of “View From the Bridge” and “Butterflies are Free”. She played the same role in the film version of “Butterflies Are Free”, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1972.
Heckart’s son, Luke, later told a funny story about his mother’s Oscar win. “When they announced her name, my father was so excited that he grabbed her and kissed her very hard. If you look at the publicity photos of her acceptance speech, you will see that she had a big gash on her chin where my dad cheated her with his congratulatory kiss.”
Heckart has also acted on television, with one of her most notable roles being that of Flo, Mary Richards’ aunt on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Heckart’s heart, however, remained in acting. She once said, “You do TV to make money so you can afford to do theater. Theater is where I started, and it’s what I believe in. “
In addition to his Oscar, Heckart received two Emmy Awards and a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Heckart frequently visited her hometown, where she had maintained friendships since childhood and her time as a student at Ohio State. In his later years, Heckart donated his collection of personal papers, photographs, clippings, correspondence, and stage, film, and television scripts to the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theater Research Institute at Ohio State. She died of cancer on December 31, 2001.
In her memory, Heckart’s three sons established the Eileen Heckart Memorial Fund in Theater, which helps Ohio State theater students purchase books and supplies for their studies. Son Luke said it was a way “to honor our mother”, who “was very poor when she went to school and had to work three jobs at a time”.
Luke Yankee wrote a book about his mother, “Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing up with Eileen Heckart” and starred in a one-man show called “Diva Dish”, based on his life as the son of a celebrity.