Bellamy, Ralph Rexford

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Bellamy, Ralph Rexford

(b. 17 June 1904 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 29 November 1991 in Santa Monica, California), versatile leading man of stage, screen, radio, and television famed for his realistic portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Dore Schary play Sunrise at Campobello (1958) and the 1960 film of the same name.

Bellamy was one of two children born to advertising executive Charles Rexford Bellamy and homemaker Lilla Smith. Bellamy graduated from New Trier High School in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, in 1922. He chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps and at the age of eighteen set out on a career as an actor that would last for more than six decades. For two years Bellamy toured in the Chautauqua circuit and in repertory and stock companies in the Midwest, working backstage as well as onstage in a wide variety of roles. In 1924 at the age of twenty, he tried his luck on Broadway but failed to find a job, instead returning to his Midwest theatrical adventures. With 400 roles in his background, he invaded New York again in 1930 to join his friend and fellow actor Melvyn Douglas, landing a part in Lynn Riggs’s Roadside, a play that lasted only eleven performances.

Nevertheless, this was long cnough for him to be spotted by a talent scout for the Hollywood producer Nicholas Schenck, who signed him to a United Artists contract. Schenck, however, was not impressed by the tall, husky, twenty-six-year-old actor and lent him to MGM for his Hollywood debut in The Secret Six (1931), featuring superstars Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Wallace Beery. This was followed by a part in West of Broadway (1931), starring John Gilbert.

The slow-starter from Illinois was now off to the races. In 1931 he left Schenck to freelance and worked at Fox Studios for a year, then at Columbia Pictures for five years. Most of his films during this period were quickly shot and run-of-the-mill. However, in 1937 Bellamy was cast by the director Leo McCarey to play a likeable Oklahoma millionaire in the sophisticated comedy The Awful Truth, in which he loses his love interest, Irene Dunne, to the handsome, dashing Cary Grant.

Bellamy won an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, but even here he lost out—this time to Joseph Schildkraut, who took home the Oscar for his work in the Warner Brothers classic film The Life of Emile Zola. Despite the prestige of the nomination, Bellamy continued to face the pattern of losing leading ladies to better-looking and more charming men in subsequent pictures. He lost Carole Lombard to Fred MacMurray in Fools for Scandal (1938), Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire in Carefree (1938), and Rosalind Russell to Cary Grant, again, in His Girl Friday (1940).

In 1942 Bellamy realized that his career as the other man, the perennial loser, would only lead to disaster. He reversed course and returned to the Broadway stage in 1943 to play a truly heroic role as a liberal, anti-Nazi college professor in Tomorrow the World by James Gow and Arnaud D&Usseau. In 1945 he essayed another strong character as a presidential candidate in State of the Union, the Howard Lindsay—Russel Crouse comedy that won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1949 he played a tough detective in Sidney Kingsley’s realistic, hard-hitting drama Detective Story.

With his “other man” image in the past, Bellamy could now plunge ahead with a variety of roles in the newly emerging television field. He appeared as private eye Mike Barrett in Man Against Crime (1949-1954), the first live half-hour weekly series drama on television. The show ran for two years live and then three more years on film. His new reputation as a tough guy won him an important part as a defense attorney in the 1955 film The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.

Once again a popular star, Bellamy made numerous guest appearances in the golden days of live television. In 1955 he won an Emmy Award nomination for his acting in “Fearful Decision,” an episode on the United States Steel Hour. The following year he received critical acclaim in the controversial drama The Filmmaker on the Goodyear Playhouse. Bellamy portrayed a traditional Hollywood mogul fighting the challenge of television films being made by the studios. Other shows that utilized his talents were Climax! (1954-1958) and Playhouse 90 (1956-1961). In a 1957 “Studio One” two-parter, he teamed up with William Shatner to play father-and-son attorneys in Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, which became one of history’s outstanding dramatic television series.

Bellamy was lured back to Broadway for the memorable role of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello (1958). Bellamy researched the life of a paralyzed person by visiting hospitals, working with physiotherapists, and consulting Eleanor Roosevelt and her children. His brilliant performance won him a Tony and the Drama Critics Best Actor Award.

Returning to Hollywood to do the film version in 1960, Bellamy was once again in demand as a character actor. Roman Polanski cast him as a demonic doctor in the cult film Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In 1983 he was once again called upon to play Roosevelt in the Herman Wouk television miniseries The Winds of War. That same year he and another veteran actor, Don Ameche, were cast in support of the rising young comedian Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. Ultimately, Bellamy made more than 100 films. In 1987 the quality of his work was officially recognized by the Motion Picture Academy, which awarded him an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

His final film was in support of two popular Hollywood stars, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, in Garry Marshall’s box office hit Pretty Woman. This took place in 1990, one year before his death. Ralph Bellamy died on 29 November 1991 of a respiratory infection. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

The acting community also remembers Bellamy for his fight on behalf of labor. He was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild and served as president of Actor’s Equity for four three-year terms (1952-1964). He led the union in its struggle against the vicious blacklisting of actors by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. His fellow actors rewarded his stewardship by naming him president emeritus for life.

Bellamy’s personal life was as varied as his professional career. His first three marriages, to Alice Delbridge from 1922 to 1931, to Catherine Willard from 6 July 1931 to 6 August 1945, and to Ethel Smith from 1945 to 1947, all ended in divorce. His fourth wife, Alice Murphy, whom he married in 1949, survived him. He had two children with his second wife, Catherine.

Bellamy’s long and distinguished career established him as an actor of amazing skill in comedy, drama, and melodrama. He won immortality in the role of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on stage, screen, and television and will be remembered fondly by his fellow actors and many generations of fans.

Bellamy’s autobiography, When the Smoke Hit the Fan (1979), is purely anecdotal and fails to mention any of his first three wives or his children. His early Hollywood years are carefully recalled in a chapter in James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players, the Thirties (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 30 Nov. 1991), London Times and Daily Variety (both 2 Dec. 1991), and People (12 Dec. 1991).

Malvin Wald