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Actress Thelma Ritter

When you hear the names Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or Bette Davis, images come immediately to mind. But in the films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, there was an army of bit players and character actors who stayed in the background. Their faces are familiar to movie buffs but very few know their names.

Yet these “hidden stars” consistently gave dependable supporting performances. Thelma Ritter is such a “star.”

I loved Thelma Ritter! Throughout her illustrious career, she was a supporting actress, but her indelible presence, her New York accent, her essence added so much to every role. She had no pretense. She was real in every way and moviegoers loved her. She made you feel that it would be easy to sit down with her, have a cup of coffee and just talk.

Ritter was totally real in her private life, too. She married Joe Moran and moved to Forest Hills, New York and later to Forest Hills Gardens, New York, where she raised their children, Monica and Joseph Jr. She made sure they had a normal childhood. They were an unpretentious family and great neighbors. Ritter was well known and well liked in the neighborhood, not because of her acting career, but because she was regarded as a terrific person. A private person, she kept her acting career separate from her life in Forest Hills. Her neighbors knew about her acting, but they liked her for herself, not her career.

A real New Yorker, she lived in Forest Hills all her life, until her death at age 63. She was born on Valentine’s Day in 1905 and was an early performer. At age eight, she recited monologues. 1926 was the year her adult acting career began with her appearance in a Broadway play called The Shelf. That’s also the year that she married Joe Moran. But soon the depression hit and to survive, she and her husband wrote slogans and jingles for radio contests. In fact, Joe was so good at writing jingles that he later went into advertising. Eventually, he was named vice president and associate director of radio and television for Young & Rubicam.

But Back To Thelma

Her movie career began in 1947 (at age 45) with an appearance in one scene in the iconic film, Miracle on 34th Street. She got the part because an old family friend, director George Seaton, was filming it in New York. He asked her to play a small rote—a woman trying to find a toy for her son at Macy’s and is told by Santa Claus to try Gimbel’s. She wasn’t billed in the film but Darryl Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox, saw the film and was so impressed with Ritter that he signed her to a contract.

In her next film, A Letter to Three Wives in 1949, she again didn’t get screen credit but impressed the film’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz. In fact, he was so impressed with Ritter that he wrote a great part for her in his next film, All About Eve (one of my favorites) in 1950. She played Bette Davis’s maid and made a huge hit with audiences and critics. Ritter usually played a mother, a maid, or a close friend. In all her roles, she was a standout. Audiences loved her and always got a kick out of her performance. They left the theater with a strong memory of Thelma Ritter.

She appeared in 30 films and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress six times: All About Eve 1950, The Mating Season 1951, With A Song In My Heart 1952, Pickup on South Street 1953, Pillow Talk 1959, and Birdman of Alcatraz 1962. She never won but she was gracious about her losses. She even threw “losing parties” on Academy nights back at her home in Forest Hills Garden.

Another role that was specially adapted for Ritter was James Stewart’s nurse in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window—another favorite of mine. She also appeared in John Huston’s 1961 The Misfits written by Arthur Miller and starring his then wife, Marilyn Monroe, along with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

An Award-winning Broadway Actress

Ritter returned to Broadway in 1957 performing 431 times in a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. The play was called New Girl in Town. Ritter won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. (She shared the award with co-star Gwen Vernon.) Ritter was also presented with an Achievement Award from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, her alma mater.

In 1969, after appearing on the Jerry Lewis Show, Ritter had a heart attack and passed away a few days later. During her funeral, the city was hit by a horrendous snowstorm. Despite this, many, many people still came to pay their respects.

Thelma Ritter—actress, wife, mother, neighbor—is still remembered with great affection. With her gravelly voice, a face that could melt a heart, a strong personality, a real person, she is still a hit with film buffs.