Ritter, Thelma (1905–1969)

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Ritter, Thelma (1905–1969)

American actress. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 14, 1905; died on February 5, 1969; graduated from the Manual Training High School, Brooklyn, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts; married Joseph Moran (an actor), on April 21, 1927; children; Joseph; Monica Ann.

Selected filmography:

Miracle on 34th Street (1947); A Letter to Three Wives (1949); All About Eve (1950); The Mating Season (1951); The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951); With a Song in My Heart (1952); Pickup on South Street (1953); Rear Window (1954); The Proud and the Profane (1956); Pillow Talk (1959); The Misfits (1961); Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); Move Over, Darling (1963); The Incident (1967); What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968).

One of the few character actresses ever to receive star billing, Thelma Ritter was equally at home on stage, screen, and television. She was the winner of an Emmy and a Tony, and had been nominated for six Academy Awards. "Show business is my life, that's all," the wryfaced actress once remarked.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1905, Ritter took to the stage at an early age, perhaps influenced by her father who was a distinguished singer. Throughout high school, she did bit parts in stock and worked summers in a candy store and as a switchboard operator to pay her tuition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. During the 1920s, she joined the Poli Theater's stock company in Elizabeth, New Jersey; although she gained valuable experience playing a wide variety of roles, her career failed to ignite. Following her marriage to fellow actor Joseph Moran in April 1927, she settled into suburban domesticity, but it was no substitute for show business. "I missed it, and I wanted to get back into it somewhere," she said later. In 1944, she began making the rounds in radio, and within a year she was featured on such programs as "The Theater Guild of the Air," "Mr. District Attorney," "Big Town," and "The Aldrich Family." In 1946, through a high-school friend who happened to be married to the film's director, she landed a walk-on part in Miracle on 34th Street, as the harried housewife who scolds Santa Claus for promising her son too many Christmas toys. After viewing the rushes, Darryl Zanuck was so impressed with Ritter's performance that he padded the role significantly.

Small but juicy parts in several subsequent films, including A Letter to Three Wives (1949), led Ritter to her breakthrough role as the wisecracking maid in All About Eve (1950), which Bosley Crowther called "screamingly funny" and which earned the actress her first Academy Award nomination. A year later, she was nominated once for The Mating Game (1951), this time for her performance as a well-meaning mother-in-law. "Miss Ritter's invincible sincerity as well as her dry and dour comicality invest the proceedings not only with authentic gaiety but with a kind of human dignity rarely encountered in such films," wrote the critic for The Christian Science Monitor. Ritter received subsequent nominations for her supporting roles in With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959), and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

In 1955, Ritter made her television debut in Paddy Chayevsky's The Catered Affair, in a role he wrote specifically with her in mind. For her portrayal of the Bronx housewife who invests all of her hopes and dreams in an elaborate wedding for her daughter, Ritter won an Emmy Award. Two years later, she took Broadway by storm, winning accolades and a Tony Award for her portrayal of the alcoholic waterfront harpy Marthy in the musical New Girl In Town, based on Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Critic Tom Donnelly, of the New York World-Telegram and Sun, hailed Ritter as "a small, bedraggled tigress, burning brightly and hilariously through the night."

When not acting, Ritter was active in civic and philanthropic work, particularly with the Girl Scouts and the American Cancer Society. She was also an avid reader, plowing through a book a day, and rereading her favorite author Charles Dickens on a yearly basis. "Off stage she is a gracious and witty woman who can punch out off-beat, sophisticated lines with the skill of a Noel Coward," wrote Fern Marja, who interviewed Ritter for the New York Post Magazine (September 16, 1957). The actress, who was the mother of two children, made her last film in 1968 and died the following year, at age 64.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1957. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1957.

Katz, Ephriam. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1974. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1974.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts