By Peter Travers
Updated June 29, 1987 12:00 PM

Greedy gut,” the actress called herself. “I love parts and I love food.” If you had the pleasure of her company at dinner, she would feign disinterest in eating, then pillage your plate like a pirate. No matter. You didn’t starve. Her conversation—blunt, playful, passionate—was always nourishing. Like her acting. Geraldine Page illuminated roles with details you would recall days, even years later, with rapt admiration. Back in 1952, the line on her acclaimed off-Broadway performance as Tennessee Williams’ repressed spinster in Summer and Smoke was that she was just playing herself. Then in 1959 she was on Broadway bedding Paul Newman as Williams’ ravaged, opium-smoking siren in Sweet Bird of Youth. “No one knew what to make of that,” said Page, hooting with laughter.

It won’t be easy getting along without the mischievous imp behind that laugh. After a Friday evening performance as the wacky medium in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit—the role for which she received her fourth Tony nomination—Page, 62, merrily chatted with co-stars Blythe Danner and Richard Chamberlain about the next day’s matinee. On Saturday Page’s son Anthony found her dead of heart failure in her Manhattan brownstone. The tributes poured in, praising her performances onstage (recently with the Mirror Repertory in The Madwoman of Chaillot), on TV (she won Emmys for Truman Capote’s The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory) and onscreen. Last year, after a record eight nominations, she finally took the Oscar for her touching performance in The Trip to Bountiful. “I miss her,” said a fan who joined a vigil outside Page’s brownstone after her death. “She reminded me of my mother.”

Page’s own children (Angelica, 23, and twin sons Jonathan and Anthony, 22, by her third husband, actor Rip Torn) knew better than to expect a conventional mother. Theirs dressed like a bag lady, discounted the fact that husband Torn had fathered a child by another woman (“What’s the big fuss?”) and never learned how to say no to a part. If sometimes her eagerness to tear into a role slipped into mannerism (“I do wiggle around”), the doctor’s daughter from Missouri never did less than make the most of any job. She wasn’t resting on her laurels when death came; she was on a roll. “I wasn’t overdone, was I?” she asked after one of her performances, adding with a sly twinkle, “Wasn’t I exquisite?” As ever, she was.