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Thelma Ritter - 8/20
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Thelma Ritter Profile

Thelma Ritter was the greatest character actress in Hollywood from the 1940s through the 1960s. What made Ritter stand out was an utter sense of realism that she brought to her parts and a completely unique voice that was gravelly one moment and heart-breaking the next. As with so many character actors, the face is familiar even if the name is not. Characters actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood often appeared in scores of films without much recognition. It is a tribute to Thelma Ritter's talent that she only made thirty films but received Oscar® nominations for six of them.

Thelma Ritter was born in Brooklyn, New York on Valentine's Day 1905 to Charles and Lucy Ritter. Her father, she said, had been a boy soprano with the Garden City Cathedral, but was afraid of a theatrical career. "He really was artistic but fundamentally Dutch." He later worked as an office manager for a shore company but his daughter had no such reservations about performing. When she was only eight years old, she would perform monologues like "Mr. Brown Gets His Hair Cut" and "The Story of Cremona" at Public School 77 in Brooklyn. At the age of 11 she played Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream with a semi-professional theatrical troupe, and often did readings at different venues in Brooklyn. While attending Manual Training High School, she appeared in several plays and briefly quit school to earn enough money to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When she applied, she was told to complete her education, which she did and later attended the Academy.

Her career was not a fast rise to fame and fortune. She appeared on Broadway in The Shelf in the fall of 1926 and In Times Square for a brief run in November 1931, but also appeared in Vaudeville and small-time theater. As Hal Erickson wrote in his All Movie Guide, "Throughout the Depression years she and her actor husband Joe Moran [who she married in 1926] did everything short of robbing banks to support themselves; when vaudeville and stage assignments dried up, they entered slogan and jingle contests." Moran gave up acting in the mid-1930s to become an actor's agent and later went into advertising. Ritter put her career aside for several years to raise her children Monica (who would become an actress) and Joe before returning to acting in radio dramas like Big Town, The Aldrich Family, The Theater Guild of the Air and Mr. District Attorney. "Whenever Mr. District Attorney needed a psycho, they put in a call for me." When not acting, Ritter lived with her family in Forest Hills, New York, which she described later in an interview, "We're only a block and a half from the subway. We came here in 1937 to see the tennis matches and decided that it was a nice place to live. We moved here and haven't been to the matches since."

Thelma Ritter made her screen debut in 1947 when director George Seaton, who was an old family friend, came to New York to film Miracle on 34th Street and asked her to play a small role of a shopper trying to find a toy for her son. "It isn't much of a part, but it'll be fun and maybe you'll bring me luck." Her role didn't rate billing in the film but it brought her to the attention of 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck who placed her under contract. For her next film A Letter to Three Wives (1949) she also didn't receive a screen credit but she made an impact on the film's director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was preparing a film called All About Eve (1950). Impressed with her performance, Mankiewicz was determined to give her a juicy part that would allow her talents to shine. He settled on that of Bette Davis' wise-cracking maid, Birdie. "Thelma Ritter was the best. I wrote Birdie Coonin in All About Eve for her. A wonderful person and a fine actress. I loved her, bless her. " The film made her as close to a star as was possible for a character actress. As she would in most of her films Ritter was a scene stealer, even up against the biggest stars, and reviews for the film were unanimous in their praise for her. Thelma Ritter was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress but did not win. It became a habit with her. Six nominations for Best Supporting Actress and no wins (the only actress to tie Ritter for the number of losses was Deborah Kerr) brought out Ritter's considerable sense of humor. She said "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" and threw "Come Over and Watch Me Lose Again" parties on Oscar® night. Each year between 1950 and 1953 she would be nominated - for The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), and Pickup on South Street (1953). Two more nominations would come for Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

The roles which Thelma Ritter was given were usually maids, mothers, or the star's best friend, often compared to those played by the legendary Marie Dressler in the early 1930s. Ritter was flattered but said, "It's always complimentary to be called another somebody - just so they don't make it stick. You know what happened to those youngsters who were billed as 'the second Garbo'. It's the Kiss of Death." Often these roles were New Yorkers. Susan Hayward, another actress born in Brooklyn spoke of working with Ritter on With a Song in My Heart, "The real joy of making the picture was Thelma - Thelma Ritter, also Brooklyn...She used to yell at me like this - "Hey Sue, what're ya' doin'? C'mon over here and take your shoes off and be yourself'". This strong personality so identified with New York earned Thelma Ritter a unique role on television: The Statue of Liberty in Dinner with the President. 1953 was the fortieth anniversary of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. To celebrate, the League produced Dinner with the President (the President being Dwight Eisenhower). It was a series of skits and music focusing on the importance of liberty - something much in the public consciousness in those days of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was broadcast on November 23rd 1953 from the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., with most Washington dignitaries in attendance, and was broadcast live on CBS, with NBC and ABC to air a filmed version later in the evening (which was unusual even in those days). The show opened, as Erik Barnouw described in his book A History of Broadcasting in the United States, "with a shot of the Statue of Liberty - which then moved and turned out to be Thelma Ritter who complained that she got pretty weary holding that torch aloft. It was hard work she said; she got snowed on and rained on and got discouraged, "Sometimes I wonder if people really appreciate Liberty." Interrupted by a boat whistle, she turned her head glancing down. "Welcome stranger...Take a left at the Battery you can't miss it."

Earlier that year Paramount had borrowed Ritter from 20th Century Fox to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) in a part that was adapted especially for her. Based on Cornell Woolrich's story It Had to be Murder, Ritter's part was originally that of an African-American houseman named Sam, but became physical therapist Stella. Ritter was billed fourth under James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Wendell Corey, but she received the highest salary, $25,694. Of working with Hitchcock, a director well-known for his remark that 'actors should be treated like cattle', Ritter said, "You knew whether you were OK or not. If he liked what you did he said nothing. If he didn't he looked as though he was going to throw up."

When not appearing in films or on television (where she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for The Goodyear Television Playhouse production of A Catered Affair), Ritter returned to Broadway. During 1957-1958 she did 431 performances of New Girl in Town, a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie with Ritter playing the barfly Marthy (which had been made famous on film by Marie Dressler). The role won her a 1958 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, which she shared with her co-star Gwen Vernon. She would return to the stage once again in James Kirkwood's UTBU, directed by Nancy Walker. The New York Times review of the play noted "there are such phenomena as intrinsically funny people and Thelma Ritter is one. By any logic of expectation she ought now to be less funny because there are few surprises left in her appearances. But all she need do is apply that umpire's voice and gravelly innocence to the most pallid of lines and it seems more humorous. With a good line she is irresistible. What helps keep her performance fresh is, of course, the fact that she is a very skilled technician."

In 1960 Ritter joined Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach on location in Nevada to shoot John Huston's The Misfits (1961), playing Isabelle Steers, owner of the boarding house where Monroe's character lives. As has been documented, it was a difficult picture to make. The heat of the Nevada desert combined with Marilyn Monroe's mental instability drove everyone to distraction and took a toll on all concerned. Gable had a heart attack three days after filming was complete and died two weeks later, while Thelma Ritter had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. Despite the difficulties, Ritter later praised The Misfits, "This picture is a little unlike any I've done before because it depends on the personalities and the relationships of the actors...We stage actors don't get this kind of jazz. They'd say, "What's she playing?" There's more emphasis on the stage on roles, not personalities." Producer Frank Taylor called it "The Ultimate motion picture. If anything happened to one of our players, I don't know what we'd do. Each of them, Marilyn, Clark, Monty Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter is the person they play."

During the 1960s, Ritter appeared in several films with such diverse roles as Robert Stroud's mother in the drama Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), a spinster heading west in How the West Was Won (1962), James Garner's mother in Move Over, Darling (1963), and Tony Curtis' housekeeper in the Jerry Lewis comedy Boeing, Boeing (1965). Shortly after appearing on The Jerry Lewis Show Thelma Ritter suffered a fatal heart attack on January 27, 1969 and passed away on February 5th at the age of 63.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
All About Thelma and Eve by Judith Roof
Joseph L. Mankiewicz Interviews by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Brian Dauth
Marilyn Monroe by Carl E. Rollyson
Reel Winners by Richard Crouse
A History of Broadcasting in the United States by Erik Barnouw
Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window by John Belton
The Internet Movie Database
The Internet Broadway Database
Obituary The New York Times
All Movie Guide

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