The daughter of a former ship captain, Ruth Gordon knew what she wanted to do with her life after witnessing a performance by stage actress Hazel Dawn. Over the initial objections of her father, Gordon decided upon a stage career, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After the usual deprivations and barnstorming (and a few extra roles in such films as Camille ), she got her first positive newspaper notice for her Broadway debut in a 1915 production of Peter Pan. "Ruth Gordon was ever so gay as Nibs," wrote influential critic Alexander Woollcott, who became a valued and powerful friend to Gordon, and did what he could to encourage her and promote her career. With such stage hits as Seventeen, Serena Blandish, and Ethan Frome, Gordon was one of Broadway's biggest stars of the 1920s and '30s; privately, however, her life was blotted by the premature death of her first husband, actor Gregory Kelly. She remarried in 1942 to the brilliant playwright Garson Kanin, some 16 years her junior -- a union that lasted more than four decades.
Combining stage work with appearances in such films as Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Gordon began to collaborate with Kanin on writing projects, with such delightful results as the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), as well as the Judy Holliday feature The Marrying Kind (1952). Long absent from movies, Gordon returned to the cameras for Inside Daisy Clover in 1966, before taking on the kinky role of an elderly witch in Rosemary's Baby (1968). Upon receiving an Oscar for her performance, the 72-year-old Gordon brought down the house by saying, "You have no idea how encouraging a thing like this can be." Although few of her subsequent film roles were as prestigious, Gordon managed to enter cult-film Valhalla with unforgettable roles in two films: Where's Poppa? (1970), in which she played the obscenely senile mother of George Segal, and Harold and Maude (1972), as the freewheeling soul mate of death-obsessed teen Bud Cort.