A much-loved comic talent in film and on television for over five decades, Charles Ruggles sputtered, stumbled and clucked his way through a series of popular turns as meek, easily overwhelmed men in such classic films as "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). Blessed with an expressive face and a voice that rose in register when his characters felt under duress, Ruggles became a scene-stealer of the first order in the late 1930s and early 1940s before stepping away from the cinema to work extensively on stage and in the early days of television. In the latter capacity, he starred on the popular sitcom "The Ruggles" (ABC, 1949-1952) and brought effortless humor as a sage, if still flappable father figure in numerous guest appearances. A welcome presence for film and television audiences for a half-century, Ruggles' comic gifts made him a favorite among classic movie fans and always one of the best elements of any stage or screen production.Born Charles Sherman Ruggles in Los Angeles on Feb. 6, 1886, he was the eldest of two sons by pharmaceutical salesman Charles Herman Ruggles and his wife, Maria. His younger brother, Wesley Ruggles, would also go on to enjoy a career in Hollywood, working briefly as an actor in silent films before moving into producing and directing such features as the Oscar-winning "Cimarron" (1931). The Ruggles brothers' early lives were marked by considerable tragedy: relatives raised the boys in San Francisco after the murder of their mother, who had attempted to protect her husband from an armed assailant. After high school, Charles Ruggles worked briefly for his father's pharmaceutical sales company, but found greater satisfaction as a stage actor. After his debut in 1905, he worked steadily as an itinerant performer with various stock companies before making his debut on Broadway in Help Wanted (1914).The following year, he earned his first screen role in a now-lost film version of "Peer Gynt" (1915), which preceded a sporadic string of feature appearances that stretched into the "talkie" years. Stage, however, remained his primary showcase during this period, with such long-running hits as "Battling Butler" and "Queen High" among the highlights of his career. His first appearance in a talking picture came with 1929's "Gentleman of the Press," which cast him as a comic alcoholic reporter. The role would become a staple of his repertoire, but he was best known for his turns as an easily flustered Everyman, who expressed his exasperation with modern life through fluttery-voiced exclamations ("Oh, my my my "). In this capacity, he gave memorable turns in a trio of fine comedies for Ernst Lubitsch, including "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) and "If I Had a Million" (1932). Occasionally, his characters came apart in spectacular fashion, as evidenced by his show-stopping turn as a henpecked husband in Leo McCarey's "Six of a Kind" (1933), which Ruggles slyly stole from such established stars as W.C. Fields and George Burns. In that picture, as well as several others, including "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935), he was paired with actress Mary Boland, who played the domineering bête noire to his milquetoast husband.By the late 1930s, Ruggles was among moviegoers' favorite comic character actors, thanks to turns like the befuddled big-game hunter Major Horace Applegate in Howard Hawks' sparkling classic "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). He eventually moved into leads in comedies in the early 1940s, including "Friendly Enemies" (1942), in which he and Charles Winniger played Americanized German businessmen whose loyalties are divided between their homeland and their adopted countries. But he was best used in supporting turns, which soon included dramatic roles in features like "A Stolen Life" (1946), as Bette Davis' supportive cousin.Ruggles broke from feature films in 1949 to return to the stage, where he won a Tony Award a decade later for "The Pleasure of His Company" (1959). He also found success in the then-fledgling medium of television, starring in one of the first family sitcoms, "The Ruggles." Playing office manager "Charlie Ruggles," he presided over a large brood of energetic children in the sitcom, which was among the first to be filmed live in Los Angeles rather than New York City. He later played a friendly general store owner who dispensed advice to his customers on "The World of Mr. Sweeney" (1954-55), which aired live four nights a week on NBC. Following its demise, he went uncredited as the voice of Aesop in the "Aesop and Son" segment of "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" (ABC/NBC, 1959-1964).Ruggles returned to feature films in the early 1960s, where, billed frequently as "Charlie Ruggles," he reprised his turn as the worldly-wise Mackenzie Savage in the film version of "The Pleasure Of His Company" (1961). He would continue to essay charming, grandfatherly types in a variety of light comedies, most notably "The Parent Trap" (1961) and "Follow Me, Boys!" (1966), while still maintaining a steady stream of television appearances. The most notable of these were as Lowell Farquhar, father of Mrs. Drysdale and unwilling love object of Granny (Irene Ryan) on "The Beverly Hillbillies" (CBS, 1962-1971) and as the warlock Hedley Partridge, who wooed Marion Lorne's Aunt Clara on "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-1972). Ruggles died of cancer at his home in Hollywood on Dec. 23, 1970.
By Paul Gaita