WEST FARGO -- In 2012, in the middle of her Broadway run in “Follies,” actress Jan Maxwell was hit by a van. She was treated at the scene but refused to go to the hospital.
“I’ve got to get back to the theater,” she recalled telling the paramedics. “I’ve got a show tonight.”
At the theater, the director and her husband eventually convinced her to see a doctor, who advised her to take six months off to let her hairline fracture heal. Maxwell, a West Fargo native, sat out two shows before returning.
Maxwell’s dedication and determination have been remembered since she died Sunday in her Manhattan home at age 61. An obituary in The New York Times, where she was often favorably reviewed, said she died of leptomeningeal disease, a result of her fight with breast cancer.
She is survived by her husband, actor Robert Emmet Lunney, and their son William Maxwell-Lunney.
The daughter of former District Judge Ralph Maxwell and Elizabeth Maxwell, a former Environmental Protection Agency lawyer, Jan graduated from West Fargo High School in 1975. She enrolled at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where theater professor Delmar Hansen pushed her to the stage and performances in Straw Hat Theater.
“I never knew you could do it as a vocation, that you could move to New York and try for a career in acting,” she told The Forum.
Just shy of earning her degree, she did just that. It took a decade to make her Broadway debut in 1990’s “City of Angels” and she finally earned a starring role seven years later in “A Doll’s House”.
“I can’t believe I didn’t give up by that time, but I guess I’m just stubborn that way,” she said about waiting for her break.
She credited her West Fargo roots and Midwest work ethic for her resilience.
“I’m proud to be from West Fargo and proud of the people I come from,” she said.
She made a name for herself as a force on the stage and earned her first Tony and Drama Desk nominations in 2005 for the musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” winning the latter. Acclaim and success followed with a second Tony nod in 2007 for “Coram Boy.” In 2010 she was nominated for two Tonys, for her roles in “Lend Me a Tenor” and “The Royal Family,” winning another Drama Desk Award for the latter.
Her perseverance in “Follies” was rewarded as she was again nominated for a Tony Award, but again lost out. The nomination came with some notoriety, though, as she was just the second actress to be nominated for four different categories; actress and featured actress in a play and musical.
In 2015 she was nominated for her tenth Drama Desk Award for “The City of Conversation.”
That summer, she announced her retirement from the stage, but went on to appear in the TV shows “Madam Secretary” and “Gotham,” among others.
Adam Pankow, then a high school theater director in West Fargo, saw her in “Follies” and was invited to meet her backstage after the show. While he wanted to find out more about her life and work in the theater, Maxwell really wanted to find out about her hometown, which she fondly remembered.
Her work didn’t go unnoticed back home. West Fargo High School wanted to induct her into its Hall of Fame for years, but her career kept her too busy until she finally made time for the award in 2014.
“It means a great deal to me,” Maxwell said before the induction. “West Fargo was a great place to grow up and to be schooled. It was a time of innocence, I guess. Not to be all Paul Simon about it. It was a great childhood.”
When she returned to West Fargo, she held a sort of master class with high school actors, offering advice and encouragement.
“She was very gracious with her time while she was here. That’s pretty indicative of her character, how she wanted to give back to students in that way and give back in a very small way to a place where she got some of her foundation,” Pankow said Monday afternoon.
He said he didn’t know she was sick then or even until he heard that she died.
What few people knew was that she had been first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. The disease returned in 2013, according to The New York Times.
“It’s that badge of honor. That, ‘the show must go on,’ kind of ridiculousness,” Maxwell said in 2014 of her accident two years prior. “It’s kind of ingrained in the people around Fargo. We just don’t complain. We get back and do our jobs.”