Lee Fierro, famous for lifting her black veil and slapping Chief Brody across the face in “Jaws,” has died, according to her friends on Martha’s Vineyard who remember her as the dedicated, vibrant matriarch of the Island’s robust theater scene.
Fierro, 91, was living off-Island in Ohio at an assisted living facility where she died from complications of COVID-19, according to Kevin Ryan, artistic director and board president for Island Theatre Workshop, a program Fierro championed during her 40-plus years on Martha’s Vineyard. During those years, Ryan estimates Fierro taught and mentored more than 1,000 children in theater.
“The one word I would think of when I think of Lee is dedication. I’ve watched her as a performer, director and business woman and then we became friends. She was my teacher and mentor,” Ryan said. “I would still call Lee for artistic discussion and commentary … She was fiercely dedicated to the mission of teaching. She, no matter what it was, would stay at it and get the job done.”
Nicki Galland said she considered Fierro her second mother. “I wouldn’t have gotten through my teen years without her,” said Galland, a novelist who credits Fierro for inspiring her creativity. “She’s the reason I followed my dreams. That’s such a hackneyed phrase, but it’s true. This is going to stick with me for a long time.”
Galland first met Fierro when she was leading the Apprentice Players. She would later come back to assist Fierro with that group.
Galland recalled Fierro performing in “The Lion in Winter” as Eleanor of Aquitaine. “I remember her saying at one of the rehearsals: ‘Even though I’m here right now as Lee, inside I’m 80 percent Eleanor of Aquitaine’.”
MJ Munafo, artistic director at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven, said Fierro starred in many roles at the Playhouse through the years. “I loved her and she was an inspiration to me,” Munafo said. “She was a huge presence on the Island theater community. She worked with hundreds of young people who just adored her.”
Donald Lyons, who played opposite Fierro multiple times through the years, recalled her as a good friend. “We were in a million plays together, which was always quite fun for me,” he said.
In that scene from “Jaws,” a furious Fierro walks up to Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, and slaps him. “I just found out that a girl got killed here last week and you knew, you knew there was a shark out there. You knew it was dangerous, but you let people go swimming anyway,” she says, sobbing. “You knew all those things and still my boy is dead now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. My boy is dead. I wanted you to know that.”
“She was tickled by it. She found it really entertaining,” Galland said. “She would say, ‘If you told me that’s what I’d be known for, I wouldn’t believe it.’ She had no screen training. She trained as a theater actor.” Galland recalled a story Fierro would tell about being scolded by director Stephen Spielberg for a dramatic exit from Edgartown Town Hall during the filming. “Lee, you’re not on Broadway, tone it down. Tone it down,” she recalled Fierro telling her.
Ryan said he understands why that role is brought up, but it in no way defined Fierro. “I really want to make sure people remember there was more to Lee Fierro than that one scene, though she really did steal that scene from a lot of big actors,” he said. “I want people to remember that she helped to build a community company that after 52 years is still here. As they’re closing around the country, we’re still here and that’s because of Lee Fierro’s dedication.”
The Island Theatre Workshop was started by Mary Payne, but Fierro spent more than 25 years as artistic director and several years after that she continued to assist working well into her 80s, Ryan said.
“She remained as a creative force and spiritual force,” Galland said. “I have memories of Lee when she was 50 and when she was 85, and there’s really not much difference. Most of my happy teenage memories involve Lee.”
When Fierro’s family made the decision for her to move to Ohio to be closer to them in 2017, it was Ryan who loaded up a truck and drove her belongings to her new home. “She was never really settled with it, but it had to happen,” he said.
Ryan’s phone has been ringing off the hook with friends offering condolences and reminiscing about Fierro.
Fierro is survived by her five children: Melanie Stephens; Anthony Stephens and his wife, Jami; Doug Keeler; Dinah Hodgson and her husband, John; and Ethan Fierro; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
“She really loved us. I think we’d all agree, she’s a woman before her time. She made choices that were challenging choices in the 50s and 60s that were true to her. They would have been way easier to make these days,” Melanie Stephens said.
She attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and was a member of the NAACP, Dinah Hodgson said. “She had a strong social conscience,” she said. “It truly has marked our lives that she did that. She could have easily lived a different life, but she just was true to herself and true to her convictions.”
She was a coach and companion at childbirth before it was popular and was a devoted member of Grace Episcopal Church, where she was a member of the choir. Some of her theater friends would be surprised to find out that she grew up in a household where she was “clamped down emotionally,” according to her daughters. She used theater and therapy to get through it.
“She understood your feelings are important and to express them is crucial,” Melanie Stephens said. “It’s part of what informed her [theatrical] directing. That acting is about finding the guts inside of you.”
A small service, given the current circumstances, is planned by the family in Ohio, but Stephens and Hodgson said when it’s possible there will be a memorial service on the Island.