Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oh, What a Character! Part 8: Ryan's Hope

Talk about a character! Today's featured actress spent her entire life performing, toiling away on the vaudeville stage, on radio, in film roles and on TV, with precious little recognition, until she was pushing sixty and landed the role that would make her a household name and a personality known all over the world. Then, having conquered the living rooms of television viewers everywhere, she continued to expand her horizons before being cut down by ill health. Still, her love of performing lives on even now in a theatrical scholarship program bearing her name. The name? Irene Ryan. (Do take note, by the way, of the talons she's sporting in this picture!)

Irene Ryan was born Jessie Irene Noblett on October 17th, 1902. The place where this occurred is in some dispute. Officially, she's listed as having been born in El Paso, Texas. There is, however, evidence obtained through the census records and some personal documents that she was actually born in San Francisco, California. Her father James was American while her mother Katherine was an Irish immigrant. Her family tree could be traced back from Appalachia to Irish Quakers and also even back to a long line of French lords, giving her quite a heritage from which to draw upon in her work.
Never what one might describe as “pretty,” she nonetheless had a sparkle in the eyes and an effervescent, rubber-faced personality that could make people collapse with laughter. When she was barely twenty, she married a young comedian three years her senior named Tim Ryan. Together, the two set out to win over audiences with a routine similar to that of George Burns and Gracie Allen's in which a straight man feeds lines to a ditzy wife. “Tim and Irene,” as the act was billed, found success on the Vaudeville circuit and proceeded to appear in several comic short films for Monogram, demonstrating their chemistry together. (For a time, Irene was billed as Irene Noblette before taking her husband's more simple moniker.)

The couple divorced in 1942 after 20 years of marriage, though they were still sometimes placed in the same movies as they both continued for a time to be under contract at Monogram. (Monogram, by the way, was considered one of the lesser studios in Hollywood – part of the so-called “Poverty Row” establishments.) As a single woman, she secured supporting parts in various now-forgotten movies like Sarong Girl, O, My Darling Clementine (with Roy Acuff!), The Sultan's Daughter and Hot Rhythm.

She began working with and touring with Bob Hope on his radio shows and his famous USO trips. She also graduated from Monogram to Universal Studios in 1944, where she had roles in San Diego I Love You (with Jon Hall), That's the Spirit (with Jack Oakie), The Beautiful Cheat (with Bonita Granville and Noah Beery Jr.) and That Night with You (with Franchot Tone.) By 1946, she was working with Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith (married in real life at the time) in Diary of a Chambermaid. She played a scaredy-cat servant character, filling out a cast that also included Hurd Hatfield, Francis Lederer, Florence Bates and Judith Anderson.

That same year, she married for the second time to a man named Harold Knox. This didn't prevent her from continuing to work, though. She appeared in Little Iodine, a feature film rendition of a then-popular cartoon strip about a bratty little girl who's always into mischief. Ryan and Hobart Cavanaugh played the lead character's (played by Jo Ann Marlowe) parents. Interestingly, this film was held up for a while due to a polio outbreak, which happened to be keeping plenty of children from being able to attend movies! The producers wanted to wait until the worst of it had passed over in order to ensure better attendance.

1947 brought The Woman on the Beach for RKO, starring Robert Ryan (no relation) and Joan Bennett. Ryan had a supporting role in this moody, romantic-triangle drama that some have said seemed quite out of place. Perhaps more appropriate was her part of Molly the Maid in Heading for Heaven, a broad comedy about a land-owning real estate agent who incorrectly believes he has only months to live. Ryan's put-upon character continuously threatens to quit working for him during the far-fetched shenanigans of the plot.

Ryan was working less frequently and beginning to appear in smaller and smaller parts. Her bit role in 1948's Arch of Triumph (starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer) wasn't even credited onscreen. More satisfying was work in such independently produced films as Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven. Dreamy Guy Madison and Diana Lynn were the stars, but Ryan was part of a very strong supporting cast that included Florence Bates, Margaret Hamilton and Moyna MacGill, the four of them shown here playing cards. MacGill, in case you don't know, was Angela Lansbury's mother, who came to Hollywood to pursue her own career which led to Angela's own stellar one! That's her on the far left.

In 1948, Ryan played Kirk Douglas' housekeeper in My Dear Secretary, stealing a few moments away from him. The next year came a role as the matriarch of a 19th century family in An Old-Fashioned Girl, based on a novel by Louisa May Alcott. Her onscreen children in this musical included star Gloria Jean and twelve year-old Elinor Donahue (of Father Knows Best fame.)

Also in 1949, Ryan had a small, unbilled bit in Mighty Joe Young and a supporting part in There's a Girl in My Heart, a musical set in 1890's New York. She seemed to be playing either maids, wives or occasional nurses, often in films that had little impact and by now have sunk with hardly a trace. At least 1951's Half Angel was a 20th Century Fox production with Loretta Young (who was a pretty big star at that time) and Joseph Cotten. As a coworker and friend of fellow nurse Young, who demonstrates considerable changes in demeanor when “sleepwalking,” she supplied some much-needed zest to the movie.

Her next project had a similar “amnesia-like” plot. Meet Me After the Show was a colorful 20th Century Fox musical starring Betty Grable, MacDonald Carey, Eddie Albert and Rory Calhoun. She played Grable's maid. She was playing another maid in 1952's Bonzo Goes to College, a sequel to Bedtime for Bonzo that starred Maureen O' Sullivan and Edmund Gwenn and was all about the hijinks of a former laboratory chimp who escapes from a carnival sideshow and winds up in a small college town, where he is adopted by the football coach! Ryan's expression in this shot says it all.

She took on the unlikely role of an army sergeant in The WAC from Walla Walla, a Republic Pictures comedy that starred Judy Canova. She continued to explore variety when she played a lady in waiting in Blackbeard, the Pirate, a 1952 RKO film that starred Robert Newton (of Treasure Island fame), William Bendix and Linda Darnell. Apart from a role in 1954's Ricochet Romance, a Ma and Pa Kettle entry, Ryan would from this point on be seen mostly on television.

She appeared on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (aka Make Room for Daddy) in 1955 and also did an episode of the suspense program The Whistler that same year. In 1957, she made two more movies, Spring Reunion, a Dana Andrews/Betty Hutton musical, and Rockabilly Baby, another musical in which she played a town busybody.

Her career in a certain lull for the next couple of years, she sometimes only racked up one onscreen job per calendar year. The 1960 movie Desire in the Dust had a large, interesting cast that included Raymond Burr and Martha Hyer, but Ryan was playing another nurse, this time opposite mentally-disturbed Joan Bennett, whom she'd worked with a dozen or so years prior. Her largest scene in the film is shot with her back to the camera and her head out of frame as Burr is featured prominently!

The year after that, she had a recurring part on the sitcom Bringing Up Buddy, about youthful Frank Aletter being raised by two maiden aunts. She filmed three separate episodes, all as the same character. She also divorced her second husband in 1961. Now single again, there were other roles on such shows as My Three Sons and Wagon Train to make ends meet, but her hardscrabble search for employment, as well as her long stretch of virtual obscurity, was about to come to an end.

Television writer and director Paul Henning was in the process of creating a new series (sponsored by Kellogg's Corn Flakes, as if you couldn't tell from this photo!) called The Beverly Hillbillies, all about the crazed goings on that occur when a backwoods family strike oil on their ramshackle property, leading to instant wealth and an estate in posh Beverly Hills, California. Henning wrote roles for Jed, the mountain patriarch, Elly Mae, his curvy daughter, and Granny, his fiesty, country-fried mother-in-law. Buddy Ebsen, who had been on the verge of retirement, was cast as Jed, but he didn't like the almost total lack of intelligence in the character, so Henning created a cousin, Jethro, who could fill that need.

Henning intended for TV veteran Bea Benaderet (who he had written for when she was on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) to be Granny, but then a change in concept to the character meant that a smaller, scrawnier type was needed. At Benaderet's suggestion, Ryan filmed a screen test and knocked the characterization out of the park. She rounded out the cast which also included Donna Douglas and Max Baer Jr as Elly Mae and Jethro. (Many folks have confused the fact that Granny isn't Jed's mother, but rather his deceased wife's. Ryan was only six years older than Ebsen in real life, though it hardly mattered thanks to her old crone makeup and the fact that she wasn't playing his own mother.) For her part, Benaderet made almost two-dozen appearances on the show as Cousin Pearl, Jethro's mother, and also went on to star in Henning's subsequent series Petticoat Junction. Since 1960, she had also been providing the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones.

Hillbillies was an instant success, climbing to the top of the Nielson ratings to become the number one show on television its first and second seasons. It hovered in and around the top ten list of shows for 8 of its 9 seasons. Critics carped at the low-brow grade of storylines involving this fish-out-of-water family, but viewers lapped up the sometimes hysterical situations. The Clampetts (though, as Ebsen's mother-in-law, Ryan was actually a Moses, though seldom referred to that way!) had trouble understanding the ways and means of life in their new mansion, what with the concrete pond in the back (the swimming pool!) and the ginormous coffee table, complete with drink holders, in the parlor (a pool table!)

Taking place in Beverly Hills as it did, occasional storyline concerned the movie-making biz, with Baer eventually becoming a would-be film director and with starlets abounding here and there. In 1964, famed gossips columnist Hedda Hopper guest-starred as herself and sported one of her trademark hats.

Several storylines involved 5'2” Ryan running roughshod over 6'5” Baer, the big lug always ready to chow down and getting chastised by Granny for interfering in her kitchen (where possum was often the meat of choice!) A relentlessly tough and caustic old bird, but one with a sentimental and caring side, nonetheless, was a genius creation on the part of the writers and Ryan herself. Though, in the wake of Ryan's death years later, a couple of actresses have attempted the part (such as Imogene Coca and Cloris Leachman), but no one can truly duplicate the qualities she brought to it. In 1963 and 1964, Ryan was nominated for Emmys as Outstanding Leading Actress (losing the first time to Shirley Booth as Hazel and the second time to Mary Tyler Moore of The Dick Van Dyke Show.)

As the show wore on, the plot lines became zanier and zanier and occasional gimmicks (such as sending The Clampetts on a trip, the inclusion of more and more animals, Granny in oddball clothing) were employed to keep things fresh. At close to the halfway point of the series' run, it was filmed in color as was becoming the norm for all network programs. This brought the lunatic antics to the screen in an even more vivid way than before. Perhaps one of the most famous episodes featuring Ryan was the January 8th, 1964 one called “The Giant Jackrabbit.” In it, an Australian kangaroo winds up on the grounds of the Clampett's Beverly Hills estate and Granny, having never witnessed such a creature, proclaims it a massive jackrabbit and tries to hunt it down and shoot it for dinner! Ryan's expert use of body language and expression helped to make this the all-time highest rated airing of the show's run.

While starring on such a hit series, Ryan suddenly became a household name (or at least her wrinkled, slick-haired rendition of Granny did.) She was, however, generally able to escape being hounded on the streets by all but those most in the know about her because, in real life, she was a nicely-coiffed, well-dressed lady! Check out this shot of her at a function of some sort at the home of Mr. Blackwell, the clothing designer who issued best and worst dressed lists for many years. Get a load of the portrait of him hanging on the wall!! Really?!

Ryan made two appearances (as Granny) on Petticoat Junction, one on Mr. Ed (still as Granny!) and even appeared as Granny in the 1966 comedy movie called Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title, which starred Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie and Richard Deacon, though not as their characters from The Dick Van Dyke Show. Thus, it seemed as if she hardly ever appeared out of craggy, mountain woman drag. But she did, on occasion. She made a charming, intelligent and really quite nicely-groomed guest player on Password, that most elegant of game shows. While there, she promoted a cookbook she'd recently penned as Granny. To my astonishment, she told Allen Ludden that in order to ensure authenticity and her own experience with the foods in it, she actually ate some of everything listed in the book, including recipes involving possum!

Ryan, rather than being annoyed as some actors might at being so closely identified with a character rather than with one's self, embraced the persona of Granny. She was introduced on Password as Irene “Granny” Ryan and often autographed photos in this manner (though usually ones that depicted her in Granny drag.) The role gave her steady employment, a certain amount of respect within the industry and the knowledge that fans all over the world loved her.

When the axe fell on Hillbillies in 1971 as part of a CBS network purge of all shows rural or homey in concept (even then, it was 30th in the ratings, hardly scraping the bottom of the pile), Ryan was set for life. Nevertheless, she wasn't done. She made one final TV appearance (on an episode of Love, American Style) and then set out to realize a lifelong dream she'd held in her heart, but had never accomplished. She wanted to perform on Broadway.

Stephen Schwartz, who'd composed Godspell and would later do the same for Wicked, was about to present his latest musical Pippin, to be directed by Bob Fosse. Pippin was the son of Charlemagne and was on a spiritual quest for self-discovery. The show, starring John Rubinstein, Ben Vereen and Jill Clayburgh, had the role of Pippin's grandmother, a zesty old lady who hands out advice through a song about living it up in the moment because “spring will turn to fall in just no time at all.”

The show was a smash hit, nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 5. Among the nominations was one for Ryan as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. (Patricia Elliott won in this category for A Little Night Music.) Thankfully, Ryan had indeed lived while she had the chance because fall was coming very swiftly. In 1973, still playing her role in the show at age seventy, she suffered a stroke. She attempted to continue with the run, but ultimately had to be taken home to California. It was discovered that she had a brain tumor and she underwent an operation for it, but it was too late. She passed away four weeks after on April 26th.

Buddy Ebsen and Max Baer were among those who served as pall bearers. Others included longtime associate and friend Bob Hope (what does that say about a person when Bob Hope is one of your pall bearers?!), Paul Henning and Walter Willison, who was John Rubenstein's replacement as Pippin. Dorothy Stickney inherited Ryan's role in the production.

Irene Ryan left no heirs, but she loved acting and loved young actors. She bequeathed $1,000,000 of her estate to the Irene Ryan Foundation, an organization she had set up that, with the help of the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival, makes scholarships available to young arts students. This program has been in place since 1972 and continues to this day with regional prizes given and two national winners chosen annually. (In fact, back during my college days, I performed in the ensemble of The Mikado and my dance partner was a winner of this national scholarship! It goes without saying that the money went further then than it does now, but that isn't Miss Ryan's fault.)

Still viewed daily, her legacy of work on The Beverly Hillbillies (in which she appeared on every one of the 274 episodes) wins her new fans all the time. That success came at a time when many people are considering hanging it up. It took a while, but she finally hit the bull's eye and crafted something that is etched in TV history.


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