Jill Clayburgh

  • Share
  • Read Later

I think fondly of the 1977 comedy Semi-Tough for a couple of reasons. First, my dad Ron played a Bulgarian placekicker in the film. Second--and much more significant--it's the movie he did with Jill Clayburgh. As one of the film's stars, Jill, who died Nov. 5 at 66, actually had lines. She was funny and winning, but it was Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, released in 1978, that brought her the most acclaim and her first Oscar nomination. As Erica Benton, a smart, attractive woman whose life is upended when her husband leaves her, Jill perfectly captured a range of emotions as expansive as it was real.

After An Unmarried Woman, she and playwright David Rabe married. As a child, I'd go to their Christmas parties, for which Jill set up fun activities like candle-decorating for the kids. I didn't know she'd been in the Alan Pakula--directed Starting Over or in Bob Fosse's original Broadway production of the musical Pippin. What I did know was that the house, though large, was infused with warmth. Jill, too, struck an extraordinary balance: elegant and seemingly above the fray, yet unmistakably down to earth and affectionate.

She kept her chronic lymphocytic leukemia private for decades and went on working. In 2006 she appeared in several plays, including The Clean House at Lincoln Center. Jill was at home on both stage and screen, but for me her most impressive roles were as a parent--to children Lily, Michael and Jason--and as a compassionate human being.

When Jill told my mom that she'd had an illness for 20 years, she was most concerned about the effect it would have on her friend. "I don't want you to cry," Jill said, with her characteristic mix of strength and sweetness. They were the words of a remarkable woman.

Alexandra Silver is a reporter for TIME