A versatile actress on many Seattle stages, the warm and witty Marjorie Nelson was so esteemed by her peers they awarded her Theatre Puget Sound's first Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award in 1998. But her efforts offstage, as a citizen of the city and the world, were equally important to Ms. Nelson, who died...

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A versatile actress on many Seattle stages, the warm and witty Marjorie Nelson was so esteemed by her peers they awarded her Theatre Puget Sound’s first Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award in 1998.

But her efforts offstage, as a citizen of the city and the world, were equally important to Ms. Nelson, who died at her Eastlake home Friday at 86 after a short bout with cancer.

“What I’ll remember most about my mother is her activism,” said daughter Judith da Silva, of Seattle. “When I was 2 we marched around the United Nations for peace. During the Cuban missile crisis she had me write to President Kennedy.”

Former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, Ms. Nelson’s stepson through her marriage to famed Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck, said Ms. Nelson was “a moral compass for me throughout my life. Marjorie was one of the most principled people I’ve known.”

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Ms. Nelson worked tirelessly for many causes, even after she and her first husband, actor Howard da Silva, were among those blacklisted in the 1950s as a result of investigations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities — denounced later as witch hunts –into alleged communist influence in the movie industry.

Later, she joined her second husband, Steinbrueck, in successful campaigns to preserve the Pike Place Market and the Victorian architecture of Port Townsend.

Born in Seattle in 1923, to rental-property owner-managers Minda and Maxwell Nelson, she attended Broadway High School and studied acting at the old Seattle Repertory Playhouse.

Then she headed to L.A., where she took classes at the Actor’s Laboratory alongside stars like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando and worked with the great German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. “It was all very exciting,” she said later.
The blacklist barred da Silva and Ms. Nelson from film roles, so the couple (who wed in 1949) left to do plays in New York and tour in the hit show “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”

In 1963, after she and da Silva were divorced, Ms. Nelson returned to Seattle with daughters Judith and Rachel, and joined the first acting company of Seattle Repertory Theatre. For several decades, she acted at the Rep, Bathhouse Theatre and many other local venues. She also co-founded The Floating Theatre and directed works by her favorite authors (Brecht, Chekhov, Beckett).

John Dillon, who directed Ms. Nelson in six shows, spoke of her “joy in entering the land of make-believe. She was talented, passionate and always had a sense of mischief about her work, no matter how serious the role.”

Ms. Nelson also appeared in films shot locally, including “The Slender Thread” and the pilot of TV’s “Twin Peaks.”
After retiring from acting in 2002, Ms. Nelson stayed active. “She hatched an idea called Earth Walk,” said Rachel da Silva, of Olympia, “a guided walk from Westlake Mall to Seattle Center that raised issues of environmental degradation and alternative energy.”

After her second husband’s death in 1985, Ms. Nelson lived independently in her bright-yellow, art-filled Eastlake home until her final illness. “She wrote poetry in her last years,” said Judith da Silva. “My mother’s whole life was about peace and art and community.”

She is survived by her two daughters, five stepchildren and 12 grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service in her honor will be announced later.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com