Susan Tyrrell, who has died aged 67, had all the makings of a cult movie star. Husky-voiced and eccentric, she was a dissipated flower child, somewhat resembling an underground Shirley MacLaine. No wonder she was cast in outrageous roles in Bad (1976) and Cry-Baby (1990), which gained her fans among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Tyrrell (pronounced Tie-rell), who liked to be called SuSu, was attracted to the bizarre. "I find beauty in the grotesque," she once said, "and in the sweet soul inside someone who has been able to get through their life without being a rat's ass. Such people should be collected, should be swept up immediately and kept in a box of broken people."
One of the broken people she portrayed so vividly was Oma, the pathetic, drunken barfly in John Huston's Fat City (1972), for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Oma falls hopelessly in love with a no-hoper boxer, played by Stacy Keach. Huston stated that the melancholy film was "about the spiritual process of the defeated and the futility and indestructibility of hope". Tyrrell herself, who played as many tough cookies as sodden losers, was a vigorously optimistic person, despite the ups and downs of her life and career.
She was born Susan Jillian Creamer in San Francisco. Her mother, Gillian, had served in the US diplomatic corps in China and the Philippines, and her father, John, who worked for the William Morris Agency, was an agent for stars such as Loretta Young and Carole Lombard. She started acting as a teenager in summer stock and regional theatre before moving to New York. In 1971 she began to get roles in television, first as an alcoholic mother in an episode of Bonanza. Her debut in movies came that year in the Henry Hathaway western Shoot Out as a plucky saloon girl (ie prostitute) taken hostage and rescued by a former bank robber, Gregory Peck.
These parts typecast Tyrrell, leaving her seldom able to escape. Fat City came soon after, as did supporting roles in mainstream films such as Jan Troell's Zandy's Bride (1974), as a buxom, wanton Latina with whom married Gene Hackman dallies. She co-starred with Keach again in The Killer Inside Me (1976), again as a prostitute, this time a blackmailing, masochistic one.
Andy Warhol was the executive producer of Bad, a perverse black comedy which gained Tyrrell cult status as a frumpy, raunchy social parasite. Her fame grew with roles in Marco Ferreri's Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), in which she seduces an alcoholic poet played by Ben Gazzara and then cries rape, and the bad-taste musical Forbidden Zone (1982), where Tyrrell is the evil Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension, a cigar-smoking woman in clown makeup who is married to a dwarf king. "Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?" she warbles.
One particular favourite among fans of low-budget, cheesy horror movies was Night Warning (1983), in which Tyrrell is a possessive, psychopathic, axe-wielding aunt. There followed her lesbian landlady Solly Mosler in Angel (1984) and its sequel, Avenging Angel (1985). She was filmed to look two inches tall in Big Top Pee Wee (1988) and was a singing bartender in Rockula (1990). John Waters's Cry-Baby had her as Johnny Depp's rockabilly grandmother, Ramona Rickettes, who shoots gophers and throws darts at a picture of Queen Elizabeth II. At one stage, she says to one of her acolytes, "You're everything a man should be: young, stupid and mean."
Tyrrell continued to appear in further kitsch midnight movies and also turned to painting. Signed SuSu, her paintings include a series of portraits entitled Fags and Dykes, and illustrations from the Kama Sutra. "My paintings were much more fun than movies because I control everything," she said.
In April 2000 Tyrrell lost both legs to a rare blood disease. Despite this, she continued to work, with roles in several movies. "The last thing my mother said to me was, 'SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.' I've always liked that, and I've always tried to live up to it."
Tyrrell is survived by her mother, from whom she had become estranged, and two sisters.
• Susan Tyrrell (Susan Jillian Creamer), actor, born 18 March 1945; died 16 June 2012
Fat City is such an amazing film, and she was great in it. RIP, Susu.