Margaret Whitton, ‘Major League’ Actress, Dies at 67


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Margaret Whitton and Charlie Sheen in “Major League II.”

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Warner Bros.

Margaret Whitton, an avid baseball fan who played the owner who concocts a plan to move the Cleveland Indians to Florida in the 1989 baseball movie comedy “Major League,” died on Sunday in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 67.

The cause was cancer, said her husband, Warren Spector.

Ms. Whitton, who shifted from acting to directing late in her career, was best known as Rachel Phelps, a newly widowed former showgirl who takes control of a moribund Indians team with a passion to make them worse.

At the time of “Major League,” the Indians were a losing team that had not won the World Series since 1948 (they still haven’t). Enter the fictional Ms. Phelps with a plan to stock her team with misfits and over-the-hill veterans so that fans would stay away and trigger an attendance clause that would let her relocate to Miami.

She takes away the players’ jet, downgrading them to a propeller plane, and then a filthy bus. She refuses to fix the clubhouse whirlpool.

But when the team’s record reaches 60-60, far exceeding expectations, she tells the general manager: “We can force a losing streak. We can still turn this around.” She is so loathed that after every win, players strip off an article of clothing from a cardboard cutout of her.

When the Indians win a playoff game against the Yankees, she watches in grim silence as fans storm the field and guests in her luxury box exchange high-fives.

Ms. Whitton also appeared in the sequel, “Major League II,” in 1994.

“Major League” played to her love of baseball. She was a Yankee fan who had season tickets to the old Yankee Stadium, her husband said, but did not renew them at the new stadium, which she found “soulless.”

She played softball in the Broadway Show League and reviewed books about baseball. In the pilot episode of “A Fine Romance,” a short-lived TV series about a globe-trotting divorced couple (Ms. Whitton and Christopher Cazenove) who host a travel show, she wrote the opening line, which she delivered in a voice-over: “It was the summer Don Mattingly hit six grand slams” — a reference to the Yankees first baseman who set the major-league record in 1987.

She was also at the center of a legal dispute with Ron Shelton, the director of “Bull Durham,” the classic 1988 movie about a minor-league baseball team starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Ms. Whitton maintained that she helped write the film while dating Mr. Shelton, who was given sole writing credit.

Mr. Spector said that Mr. Shelton had refused to give her credit after their relationship ended. Eventually she sued.

Mr. Shelton denied the claims and said in an email on Monday that the script had been in the works “long before’’ he briefly dated Ms. Whitton. “She claimed a contribution to the script that was patently false,” he wrote.

According to a court document provided by Mr. Spector, Ms. Whitton received $100,000 and 2 percent of the film’s net profits to settle her claims.

Margaret Ann Whitton was born on Nov. 30, 1949, in Meade, Md., outside Baltimore. She spent several formative years in Japan with her father, an Army colonel, and her mother, a nurse, before the family moved, first to Haddonfield, N.J., and then to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she started acting at Northeast High School.

Her first Off Broadway appearance was in “Baba Goya” in 1973 with Olympia Dukakis, and she was subsequently in many Public Theater productions in New York, including Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” and at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. She also appeared on Broadway, in the plays “Steaming” and “The Apple Doesn’t Fall…” and the musical “Marlene.”

Besides Mr. Spector, her second husband, she is survived by her sisters, Suzy Liss and Mary Beth Whitton, and her brothers, James and John Whitton. Her first marriage ended in divorce.

Ms. Whitton shifted from acting to directing in the 1990s, at the suggestion of Arthur Penn, who was directing her in a production at the Lee Strasberg Theater at the Actors Studio in New York. According to Mr. Spector, she said, “I don’t think I have the ego to be a director,” but Mr. Penn told her, “I think you do.”

She directed two dramas by the Irish playwright Marina Carr and “Dirty Tricks,” John Jeter’s one-woman play about Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, and her role in the downfall of the Nixon administration. Judith Ivey played Mrs. Mitchell in the production, at the Public Theater. Ms. Whitton also directed a film, “A Bird of the Air,” released in 2011.

But none of that work overshadowed her “Major League” role as Rachel Phelps. Ms. Whitton regularly received requests to sign photos of herself as the sexy, merciless team owner. A ball sent by a fan, hoping for an autograph, arrived at her home only days before she died.

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