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Phillips, Peg (1918-2002), Actor

HistoryLink.org Essay 4019 : Printer-Friendly Format

Margaret "Peg" Phillips was a retired accountant and late-blooming actor who won fame as the crusty shopkeeper Ruth-Anne Miller in the television series Northern Exposure.

Born September 20, 1918, in Everett, Phillips moved to California at age 18. She married and divorced twice (first to Daniel Green and then Chester Phillips), raised four children, and returned to the Northwest in 1977, settling in Woodinville.

At age 66, after retiring as a tax accountant, she enrolled in the University of Washington drama school. She began getting jobs almost immediately, beginning with the 1985 made-for-television movie Chase. Four years later, she was cast in what was supposed to be an intermittent role on Northern Exposure, a new CBS series about the travails of a New York doctor working off his student loans in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. Viewer reaction to her character was so strong that she became a regular member of the cast. Filmed on a sound stage in Redmond and in the Central Washington community of Roslyn, the show lasted for six seasons, three of them in the top 20.

In many ways, Phillips mirrored the feisty, plain-spoken, unpretentious Ruth-Anne. Criticized for smoking in one episode, she retorted: "I've been smoking since I was 13 years old, and during the Eisenhower administration I peaked at three packs a day. I'm not about to stop now" (The Seattle Times, 2002). She wore blue jeans, suspenders, and sandals to the Emmy award ceremony when she was nominated for best supporting actress in 1993. When asked who designed her outfit, she replied: "Me."

"She was forthright, funny and direct," said Hal Ryder, a professor at the Cornish College of the Arts, who directed Phillips in Bell, Book and Candle at the Woodinville Repertory Theatre in 1999. Phillips founded the theater -- "on a shoestring and a dream" -- the previous year. "She had a vision for a theater company, she had a vision for humanity and she conducted herself in that vision. She wanted to treat people fairly, and she did" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Phillips also donated time and money to Theatre Inside, a drama program she founded in 1987 for incarcerated juvenile offenders at Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie. She saw drama as a way to teach cooperation and improve self-esteem. "There's nothing better for a person's damaged self-esteem," she once said, "than to get up in front of people and have them applaud
(Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

In addition to her work on "Northern Exposure," Phillips appeared in more than eight movies, including Waiting for the Light (1990), with Shirley MacLaine, and the made-for-television film How the West Was Fun (1994). She also made guest appearances in such TV series as Seventh Heaven, Touched By An Angel, and ER.

During her lifetime, she overcame polio, peritonitis, a ruptured aorta and, at age 81, a broken hip and wrist from being hit by a car in a shopping center parking lot. She also faced the grief caused by the deaths of two of her children, a daughter, Katie, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1997, and a son, Arthur, who was killed in an accident at age 20. Like Ruth-Anne, she accepted the full panoply of life, joy as well as sorrow. "You've got to live while you live," she said in 1999. "Can't sit around waiting to die" (The Seattle Times, 1999).

An unrepentant smoker, Peg Phillips died of lung disease in an adult care facility in Bothell on November 7, 2002. She left two daughters, Virginia Phillips, Everett, and Rev. Elizabeth Green, Boise, Idaho; four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

Sherry Grindeland, "'Northern Exposure' Actress, Woodinville Theater Founder," The Seattle Times, November 12, 2002, p. B-1; John Levesque, "Actress Realized her Dream on 'Northern Exposure,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 2002, p. B-1; Misha Berson, "Not a Square Peg," The Seattle Times, August 5, 1999, p. C-1; "Peg Phillips Biography," (http://home.attbi.com/~mcnotes/phillips2.html).

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"Northern Exposure" actors Margaret "Peg" Phillips (1918-2002) and Barry Corbin, Emmy Awards ceremony, 1993
Photo by Alan Light

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