Bea Benaderet

Active - 1940 - 1966  |   Born - Apr 4, 1906 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Oct 13, 1968   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Bea Benaderet only appeared in a relative handful of movies, usually in small parts, but as a voice actress she was one of the busiest people on radio and later in cartoons, and in the final eight years of her life she was a fixture on two hit rural comedies on the CBS network. Benaderet was born in New York City in 1906, the daughter of Samuel Benaderet, who had emigrated from Turkey, and the former Margaret O'Keefe. The family moved to San Francisco, and she studied voice and acting. She did stage and stock work while still in school and made her debut on radio when that medium was in its infancy. She did one-off work in various commercials and one-shot parts until 1936 when Orson Welles, appreciating her range and potential, hired her for a regular role on The Campbell Playhouse. Her big break, however, came when she was hired by Jack Benny for his radio show, on which she essayed numerous roles and, in fact, became something of the distaff answer to Mel Blanc, Benny's resident male vocal jack-of-all-trades. She became a ubiquitous presence on radio, on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Great Gildersleeve, and Fibber McGee and Molly. Benaderet did a few film appearances, in small roles across the years (she can be spotted as a clerk in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious), but it was her voice that kept her busiest, starting in 1940 with Tex Avery's excruciatingly funny The Bear's Tale. From 1943 onward, she worked in cartoon voice roles by the dozens, even as radio began to recede in importance with the advent of television.

Benaderet made the transition to the new medium in high style, cast as Blanche Morton, the next-door-neighbor on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show starting in 1950. She was the first choice of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to play Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, but her commitment to Burns and Allen precluded this (much as they were unable to get their first choice for Fred Mertz, Gale Gordon, who was tied to Our Miss Brooks at the time). Meanwhile, around her work on the Burns and Allen show, she was busy providing voices to many of the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1950s. At the end of the decade, she brought her voice work to a primetime series in the role of Betty Rubble in the Hanna-Barbera-created series The Flintstones, which also included in its cast such other radio veterans as Blanc, Alan Reed, and Jean Vander Pyl. At the start of the 1960s, she came very close to a costarring role in primetime, as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. The part was conceived by producer Paul Henning with Benaderet in mind, but she was considered a little too physically well-endowed for the role, and it was Benaderet herself who reportedly recommended Irene Ryan, who got the part; instead, Henning wrote in a new part, of Cousin Pearl Bodine (Jethro's mother), for Benaderet. In 1963, she won the starring role of Kate Bradley in the rural sitcom Petticoat Junction, and for the next four years she was seen weekly on the show as the mother of three attractive daughters and owner/manager of a small-town hotel. She also appeared in the same role in episodes of the spin-off series Green Acres, starting in 1965. In 1967, however, Benaderet, who was a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and went into the hospital for treatment. The producers hoped she would return and wrote an explanation for her character's absence. Her illness proved terminal, however, and the producers were left in a delicate position, as a story-arc begun with Bradley's married youngest daughter having her first child was to culminate with Kate Bradley's race to the hospital to witness the birth; a double was used, shot from the back, while Benaderet's colleague Vander Pyl (who had been the voice of Wilma Flintstone) dubbed her lines for a climactic scene that just passed muster in terms of tastefulness. Benaderet's character was subsequently written out of the series. Ironically, for all of the wholesome, homespun, motherly characters she played, Benaderet was known among her colleagues for a mouth that could out-curse a sailor, as well as her chain smoking. She was married twice, the first time to fellow actor Jim Bannon, with whom she had two children (one of them actor Jack Bannon), and the second to Gene Twombly, a soundman on the Jack Benny radio show.

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