(b. 29 April 1909 in Owensboro, Kentucky; d. 12 September 1994 in Woodland Hills, California), actor whose starring appearance opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1953) associated him with one of the twentieth century’s most enduring sex symbols.
Ewell was born Samuel Yewell Tompkins, the son of Samuel William Tompkins, an attorney, and Martine Yewell, a homemaker. Nicknamed Straw because of his red hair, Yewell grew up fascinated with the showboats on the nearby Ohio River. He acted in grade-school theatricals and helped found the Rose Curtain Players at Owensboro Senior High School, from which he graduated in 1927. Later that year he entered the University of Wisconsin to study law but after four years decided, along with his college friend Don Ameche, to move to New York City to be an actor. At this point Yewell changed his name to Tom Ewell.
During his first decade in show business, Ewell appeared in a string of failures. His initial Broadway role, which he won because of his red hair, was a bit part as Red in They Shall Not Die (1934), which is based on the Scottsboro case involving nine black boys accused of raping two Alabama white women. As Ewell moved from flop to flop, he worked in odd jobs that ranged from elevator operator to street photographer. “I didn’t do these crazy things because I wanted to—I had to,” he said after he became successful.
World War II interrupted Ewell’s theatrical career. He enlisted in the navy in 1942, served in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and had risen to the rank of lieutenant by the time of his discharge in 1945. On 18 March 1946 he married Judith Ann Abbott, the daughter of the theatrical producer George Abbott. The couple divorced soon afterward. Ewell next married Marjorie Sanborn on 29 April 1948; they had one son.
Ewell’s theatrical fortunes improved in the late 1940s. He did well in Apple of His Eye in 1946 and then had his first hit in John Loves Mary (1947) as the hero’s friend. He received accolades from Variety’s Poll of Drama Critics and a Donaldson Award. Ewell’s success took him to Hollywood, where he appeared as the wayward husband in Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He made a number of other films, including Up Front (1951), based on the Bill Mauldin GI cartoon characters, and Willie and Joe Back at the Front (1952), which he claimed to have done “just for the money.”
His greatest professional success came in November 1952, when he opened on Broadway as Richard Sherman in The Seven Year Itch. While his wife and child are away for the summer, Sherman, who has been married for seven years, pursues the attractive woman who lives above his apartment. The play featured Ewell soliloquizing to the audience about his thoughts, a technique that he repeated in the movie version of the play and other films. The role of the bumbling but earnest philanderer was perfectly suited to Ewell’s rumpled stage persona of the lecherous, ineffectual middle-class male. “I’ve never read a part that gives an actor an opportunity for such variety,” he told an interviewer. This part garnered Ewell a Tony Award in 1953 for best dramatic actor.
The Seven Year Itch was such a hit, running for 730 performances on Broadway and a national tour, that a screen version became the logical next step for its author, George Axelrod. Billy Wilder was hired to direct, and Marilyn Monroe, then at the height of her popularity as a sex goddess, was cast as the alluring woman upstairs. Although he was identified with the role of Richard Sherman, Ewell was not the first choice of the movie’s producers. “Billy Wilder wanted me,” Ewell said. He knew that Wilder had also considered Gary Cooper and William Holden for the part, but he did not know that Wilder had really hoped to sign Walter Matthau. In the end it became clear that Ewell was the best choice because Monroe’s star power would determine the success or failure of the film at the box office. Ewell received $25,000 for his performance in the film, which was released in 1955.
Ewell found Monroe easy to work with, though in later life he told curious fans that he had no idea what she was really like. The film was not as funny as the play, but it contains one enduring image. Ewell stands next to Monroe when her skirt is blown upward by a blast of air from a New York City subway grate. Reproduced on countless posters and a seller on the Internet four decades later, the image gave Ewell a notoriety that overshadowed the rest of his career.
Through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Ewell stayed active in film and theater. His movies included two more roles with Hollywood’s most glamorous starlets, The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956) with Sheree North and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) with Jayne Mansfield. He returned to Broadway in The Thurber Carnival (1960) and then appeared once again in his harried-husband role as the star of the short-lived Tom Ewell Show from 1960 to 1961. For the next two decades Ewell toured with stock companies and had character parts in movies such as State Fair (1962) and The Last Tycoon (1976). He was Robert Blake’s sidekick, Billy Truman, in the television police drama Baretta (1975–1978). By that time Ewell had put on a good deal of weight. Beset with a drinking problem early in his stage career, he confined himself to soft drinks later in life. By the 1980s he had retired to California, where he died after a long series of illnesses.
Ewell was a talented, competent actor who performed well in a variety of roles, but he was most comfortable as the 1950s male with libidinous urges that conflict with the middle-class lifestyle. In the right part, which The Seven Year Itch provided for him, he was a master of timing and the hilarious pause. When he crossed paths with Marilyn Monroe, he became a residual part of her legend and will be linked with her as long as The Seven Year Itch is shown and the photograph of Monroe’s windswept dress is displayed.
There are a few documents relating to Ewell in the Phyllis McGinley Papers at Syracuse University. The New York Herald Tribune morgue at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin contains a small file of clippings under the title “Mrs. Tom Ewell.” The Kentucky Historical Society also has some clippings about him. A useful sketch is in Current Biography Yearbook, 1961 (1962): 149-151. John S. Wilson, “Tom Ewell’s Twenty-Year Pitch,” Theatre Arts (May 1953): 18-22, and Herbert Mitgang, “Tom Ewell’s Twenty-Year Itch,” New York Times Magazine (19 Sept. 1954), are lively contemporary evaluations. Ewell’s role in The Seven Year Itch is discussed in Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1993), and Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Sept. 1994). Ewell gave an informative interview in 1974 to the Southern Methodist University Oral History Project on the Performing Arts, which is available on microfiche (1978).
Lewis L. Gould