From 1997 to 2015, Jan Maxwell, from West Fargo, was heralded as one the best actresses of the American theater.

In less than 20 years, she received 26 nominations for major theater acting awards. “Her nominations in two separate Tony Award categories in 2010 made her only the fourth actress to achieve two nominations in a single year. Her 2012 nomination for 'Follies' made her only the second actress to receive a Tony nomination in all four acting categories.”

Unfortunately, I believe most of us who live in the Upper Midwest rarely, if ever, get to see a play on Broadway. However, fortunately for many of us, Jan also made a number of memorable appearances on television.

West Fargo native Jan Maxwell in “Follies,” for which she received Tony and Drama Desk nominations in 2012. Photo by Joan Marcus / Special to The Forum
West Fargo native Jan Maxwell in “Follies,” for which she received Tony and Drama Desk nominations in 2012. Photo by Joan Marcus / Special to The Forum

After 17 years in pursuit of establishing herself as a featured actress in New York City, Jan Maxwell’s hard work and determination began to pay off. In 1997, she ended up in a three-way tie for an Outer Critics Circle Award (OCCA) for “best feature actress” in her Broadway role as Kristine Linde in "A Doll’s House."

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In 1998, Jan was awarded the title role in "Camille" at the Olney Theater in Baltimore. Also that year, she played the baroness, Elsa Schraeder, in the Broadway musical revival of "The Sound of Music," which ran from March 12, 1998, to June 20, 1999, and Jan was nominated for another OCCA for outstanding feature actress.

From Oct. 19, 2000, to Sept. 1, 2001, she played the role of Mariette Levieux, a “brittle and troubled” French novelist, in "The Dinner Party." Co-starring with Jan in this Neil Simon comedy were the popular television actors Henry Winkler and John Ritter.

In May 2002, Jan co-starred in a play, or should I say two plays, that were very challenging. It was “a theatrical double-header” at the Manhattan Theatre Club with the titles "House" and "Garden." The two plays were “performed simultaneously by one cast on two stages in front of two audiences,” with the cast members rushing back and forth between the two stages.

From October to December, Jan co-starred in "My Old Lady" at the Promenade Theater in New York City as “a quick-talking teacher,” which garnered for her a Drama Desk Award (DDA) nomination for “outstanding feature actress.” In 2003, Jan co-starred in "A Bad Friend" at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

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In April 2004, she returned to Broadway to co-star with Judd Hirsch in Jewish-Palestinian drama "Sixteen Wounded." For her role as the Russian-born prostitute that Hirsch falls in love with, Jan received DDA and OCCA nominations for “outstanding feature actress.” Later that year, she co-starred in "The Bald Soprano" at New York’s Atlantic Theater and also in "Opening Doors," Stephen Sondheim’s musical at Carnegie Hall.

On April 28, 2005, the theater musical adaptation of the film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" debuted on Broadway with Jan in the role of Baroness Bomburst. For her feature performance, Jan received her first Tony nomination and she won the DDA.

Early in 2006, she and Alec Baldwin starred in "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" at the Laura Pels Theater in New York City. Critics marveled at Jan’s performance in the play, but were stunned in late March when she decided to leave the cast. Jan was a consummate professional, and after observing Baldwin’s “temperamental behavior,” she was no longer comfortable co-starring with him and gave notice to the producers that she would be leaving. Jan was later nominated for both the DDA and OCCA for best feature actress for her role in the play.

She then co-starred with Richard Chamberlain in "The King and I" at the Blaisdell Concert Hall in Honolulu, Hawaii. In late April 2007, Jan participated in "Cry-Baby," a musical adaptation of a Johnny Depp movie. On May 2, she debuted as Mrs. Lynch in a Broadway play, "Coram Boy." It was called a “play with music, rather than a musical,” and for her performance, Jan was nominated for both a DDA and a Tony award.

In November, she made three appearances as Judge Myatt on the daytime television soap opera "All My Children." Jan was a television veteran, having appeared on several episodes of "Law and Order" between 1994 and 2003.

From April 26 to May 17, 2008, Jan starred in the drama "Substitution" at the Soho Playhouse in New York City. In July, she played a Renaissance-era artist, Galactia, in "Scenes from an Execution" and received a DDA nomination for “outstanding actress.” Then, in September, she played the role of Maria in "To Be or Not To Be."

In January of 2009, Jan became a semi-regular actress as Headmistress Queller in television series "Gossip Girl," and in May and June, she frequently appeared in the role of Cindy Brennan on daytime soap opera "One Life to Live."

From Oct. 8 to Dec. 15, she co-starred as Julie Cavendish in "The Royal Family," a Broadway play parodying the Barrymore family. For her performance, Jan won the DDA for “outstanding actress” and was also nominated for a Tony Award in 2010.

From April 4 to Aug. 15, 2010, she played the role of Maria, the jealous wife, in the comedy "Lend Me a Tenor." She won the OCCA for “outstanding feature actress” and was nominated for a Tony Award for “best performance by a feature actress,” thus “becoming only the fourth actress to achieve two Tony nominations in a single year.” From Oct. 24 to Nov. 21, she starred as Emily, a stroke victim, in the play "Wings."

Jan then received a starring role as Phyllis Rogers Stone in the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical, "Follies," that opened in the Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., on May 7, 2011. After closing on June 9, the play was reprised on Broadway on Aug. 7, and it ran until Jan. 22, 2012. For her performance as a lead actress, Jan was nominated for the DDA and OCCA along with the Tony, Drama League, Helen Hayes and Fred Astaire awards. The Tony nomination made her only the second actress (Angela Lansbury was the first) to receive Tony nominations in all four acting categories; lead actress in a play; lead actress in a musical; feature actress in a play; and feature actress in a musical.

In July of 2013, Jan played Skinner, the witch, in Howard Barker’s "The Castle, a Triumph," and was nominated for a DDA as “outstanding feature actress” in 2014. On May 5, 2014, she premiered the role of Hester Ferris, a Washington political party-thrower, in "The City of Conversation." Jan was recognized for her performance with nominations for the OCCA and DDA, along with the Drama League and Lucille Lortel awards.

Jan Maxwell plays Senator Ella Pollack in CBS political/sci-fi satire, "BrainDead." CBS/ Special to The Forum
Jan Maxwell plays Senator Ella Pollack in CBS political/sci-fi satire, "BrainDead." CBS/ Special to The Forum

It was about this time that Jan was diagnosed with breast cancer, and because of the disease and treatments, she was not able to accept any more theater roles and announced her retirement from the stage in 2016. However, she increased her work on television, appearing in the series "Dick Punch," "The Divide," "The Good Wife," "Billy and Billie," "BrainDead," "Gotham" and "Madam Secretary."

Jan Maxwell died on Feb. 11, 2018.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist