Thelma Ritter

Active - 1947 - 1968  |   Born - Feb 14, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York, United States  |   Died - Feb 5, 1969   |   Genres - Comedy, Romance, Drama, Comedy Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

At the tender age of eight, Thelma Ritter was regaling the students and faculty of Brooklyn's Public School 77 with her recitals of such monologues as "Mr. Brown Gets His Haircut" and "The Story of Cremona". After appearing in high school plays and stock companies, Ritter was trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Throughout the Depression years, she and her actor husband Joe Moran did everything short of robbing banks to support themselves; when vaudeville and stage assignments dried up, they entered slogan and jingle contests. Moran forsook performing to become an actor's agent in the mid-1930s, while Ritter also briefly gave up acting to raise a family. She started working professionally again in 1940 as a radio performer. In 1946, director George Seaton, an old friend of Ritter, offered her a bit role in the upcoming New York-lensed Miracle on 34th Street. Ritter's single scene as a weary Yuletide shopper went over so well that 20th Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that the actress' role be expanded. After Ritter garnered good notices for her unbilled Miracle role, Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote a part specifically for her in his 1948 film A Letter to Three Wives (1949). She was afforded screen billing for the first time in 1949's City Across the River. During the first few years of her 20th Century-Fox contract, Ritter was Oscar-nominated for her performance as Bette Davis' acerbic maid in All About Eve, and for her portrayal of upwardly mobile John Lund's just-folks mother in The Mating Season (1951). In all, the actress would receive five nominations -- the other three were for With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953) and Pillow Talk (1959) -- though she never won the gold statuette. Ritter finally received star billing in the comedy/drama The Model and the Marriage Broker (1952), in which she assuages her own loneliness by finding suitable mates for others. After a showcase part as James Stewart's nurse in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Ritter made do with standard film supporting parts and starring roles on TV. In 1957, Ritter appeared as waterfront barfly Marthy in the Broadway musical New Girl in Town, a bowdlerization of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Ritter interrupted her still-thriving screen career in 1965 for another Broadway appearance in James Kirkwood's UTBU. Shortly after a 1968 guest appearance on TV's The Jerry Lewis Show, Ritter suffered a heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal; the actress' last screen appearance, like her first, was a cameo role in a George Seaton-directed comedy, What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968). Ritter's daughter, Monica Moran, also pursued an acting career from the 1940s through the 1970s.

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  • Called "a great character actress, the best we had" by playwright-screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky after her death. 
  • Knew she wanted to act from a young age. At age 8 she performed monologues at her grammar school; at 11 she appeared in a semi-professional production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; and in her teens she acted in high-school plays.
  • Worked in an office for a time in order to raise money to afford drama school.
  • Met her future husband Joe in the late 1920s when both were working for a theater troupe in New England. He eventually left acting and entered advertising.
  • Appeared primarily in stock theater for the first 14 years of her career, though she did grace Broadway in the short-lived The Shelf (1926) and In Times Square (1931). . 
  • Left showbiz for a time during the 1940s to concentrate on her family and raise her children.
  • Recruited for a small part in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) by director George Seaton, who was a family friend. It was her first film role, at the age of 42.
  • Her brief Miracle on 34th Street turn so impressed 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck that he signed her to a contract. 
  • Shared the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for New Girl in Town (1957) with costar Gwen Verdon; it was the first tie in Tony history.
  • Lived in Forest Hills, NY, all of her adult life.