Lelia Goldoni, the actor best known as the female lead in John Cassavetes’ groundbreaking film Shadows, has died aged 86. The news was first reported by the Wrap, who said that her manager JD Sobol announced that she died on Saturday at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey.
Goldoni had become involved with Shadows as a result of the acting workshop Cassavetes had started in 1956 – before which, according to Cassavetes, she had no professional acting experience. The film itself arose from an improvised audition sketch Cassavetes had performed for acting guru Lee Strasberg about two black siblings who “passed” for white. Having elaborated the idea into a full-length film, Cassavetes asked Goldoni to play the sister to brothers Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers; her character became the central figure of the film, with her new boyfriend (played by Nicholas Ray’s son Tony) startled to discover her family’s ethnicity.
Goldoni, however, was Italian-American, a consideration that did not appear to concern Cassavetes, despite his vocal promotion of authenticity and eliding the gap between acting and real life. Nevertheless Goldoni committed fully to Cassavetes’ immersive techniques, shooting a love scene with Ray more than 50 times, resulting in swollen and bleeding lips. (None of this ended up in the version that was finally completed in 1959, after Cassavetes extensively reworked it.) After occasional festival screenings, Shadows eventually achieved a theatrical release in the UK in 1960 (although Goldoni was not allowed by Cassavetes to attend its London gala premiere), followed by a brief US run, and Goldoni was nominated for a most promising newcomer Bafta award.
Cassavetes ensured she was given a role in his TV series Johnny Staccato, and she subsequently moved to London for a decade, appearing in a string of British films and TV shows, including The Italian Job (as the sultry woman who gives Michael Caine the plans for the robbery), the Errol John-scripted Wednesday Play The Exiles about Trinidadian immigrants to the UK, and in the Freddie Francis thriller Hysteria, as a woman aiming to frame the amnesiac hero for murder.
After returning to the US in 1973, Goldoni was cast as Karen Black’s friend Mary Dove in period Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust, and in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as Ellen Burstyn’s friend and neighbour (for which she received another Bafta nomination, for best supporting actress). She also appeared in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the 1980 slasher movie The Unseen.