With one of the brightest smiles and biggest personalities in show business, character actress Ruta Lee has maintained one of the longest and most varied careers in Hollywood. With a lifetime of performing, first getting on the stage as a young child, Ruta made her debut in the early days of network television with roles on Roy Rogers, The Adventures of Superman and The Burns and Allen Show. Gaining the reputation for her professionalism and her ability to take on any role, as her television career began to take off, Ruta successfully crossed over to film when she took the roll of Ruth Jepson in the highly celebrated 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Soon Ruta became a familiar face on television, making constant episodic appearances in every type of television show imaginable, while making appearances in more big films including Witness for the Prosecution and Funny Face. Beautiful, charismatic and versatility, Ruta racked up hundreds of credits and worked with everyone in Hollywood. Ruta Lee has a connection, and a story, about everyone.
But despite her impressive body of work and incredible career, Ruta has a bigger legacy through her work with The Thalians. A Hollywood based charity that is dedicated to raising money to help people suffering of mental illness, Ruta is the current president of the group and has served either as the president or the head of the board of directors for over fifty years. Raising millions of dolars for over sic decades, Ruta’s commitment to The Thalians has been something to truly be proud of, making her not only famous for her acting, but also for her humanitarianism.
Vibrant and funny, Ruta has a sharp wit and a sharper mind, making her an incredible story. A woman who has met them all and seen it all, she is about to release her first memoire, Consider Your Ass Kissed, later this spring. I was so excited to talk to Ruta about her life and work, and talk about some of the things that readers have to look forward to in her upcoming book.
Sam Tweedle: It is such a wonderful thing for me to be talking to you! You have been on almost every favorite television show of mien I’ve ever watched,
Ruta Lee; Well I’m so glad glad someone out there was watching because it meant I got paid.
Sam: When I was going through your acting credits, you’ve done every type of show possible – comedies, sit coms, cartoon voices, game shows, crime dramas, a lot of westerns. But one thing I thought was interesting was that you would appear on a series multiple different times in different roles. For instance, you appeared on Perry Mason and Maverick five times as five different characters. How do you maintain such versatility to not only be able to do so many different types of series, but also play different kind of roles again and again?
Ruta: Well, I’ll tell you the main thing that happened was that I worked fast and hard and I did it in one or two takes. I wasn’t a pain in the ass to the producers, and I worked with everybody and everything and laughed my way through it all. What’s so shocking to me is that nowadays bad behavior on the set or in life is quite acceptable, while it wasn’t when I started in the business. You had to work hard and fast and be a pro and not be an idiot or keep the company waiting and have a nervous breakdown because you couldn’t remember your lines. You came in prepared and you acted like you knew what you were doing, even if you didn’t.
Sam: So do you feel that your professionality gave you a reputation that had people continue to hire you?
Ruta: I think so. I grew up being on stages, not in professional companies but in the church choir or whatever. I grew up as a child singing and dancing and being of Lithuanian heritage. So the newspapers knew about me, and at age five or six I would be performing In Boston or New York where there would be a Lithuanian parish. So I knew what it was like to be getting up in front of people and doing something with people watching and expecting you to do well. So I took on the responsibility of thinking “Gee, they came to see me, I damn well better perform.” I think the same thing applied to me, and still does to this day. If I say I’m going to do something I will do it with my full heart and soul wrapped in whatever it is, whether it talking to you, or whether its appearing in a Spielberg movie, which I’ve yet to have.
Sam: You originally came from Montreal. How did you end up in Los Angeles?
Ruta: Yes, I still have my Canadian citizenship. Well, my Lithuanian mother and father wanted to move to a warmer climate from cold cold up to your fanny in snow Montreal. My mother didn’t know anything about theatre, which would have been the logical step for her newbie daughter, at age ten or eleven. But she knew about Hollywood and Shirley Temple, and I was Lithuania’s answer to Shirley Temple as far as my mother was concerned. And my mother was the furthest thing from being a show biz mother. She was just a simple little woman, but she knew about Hollywood. So when they were invited by a Lithuanian Catholic priest to come and visit in his tiny little house in California in the late 1940’s, and it was green and blossoming and beautiful and flowering in mid February, they fell madly in love with California and decided to take the big leap. They sold off everything they owned in Montreal and moved to California, and that’s how it came about.
Sam: I read that one of your first jobs was working at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I love Grauman’s Chinese Theatre so much. It’s like a holy place to me. What was Grauman’s like when you were working there?
Ruta: Well, you got to realize that when I was going to Hollywood High School, which is just around the corner on Vine St, I would get a job in the summer at a theatre just down the street. But eventually I auditioned for a chance to be an usherette at Grauman’s. Of course, to your younger readers, they probably don’t know what an usher did. We simply took our flashlight and led people to their seat that they wanted in the house. I would stand at the aisle and watch all the movie queens at Grauman’s Chinese in my little black pants and my Chinese tunic and my flashlight and I dreamed of being on the screen just like these wonderful women, all of whom became my good friends later on in my life – Bettie Grable and Ethel Merman and Mitzi Gaynor. All of these ladies became my friends. But anyway, back to the story. There I was, happy to be at the top of the aisle watching and dancing and living vicarious through the girls on the screen. Well, then I got promoted to candy girl, and math has never been my strong suit. But, everything was ten cents, twenty cents and fifty cents, and I could deal with those increments. So I did very well, and the candy booth was next to the top aisle so I could step in and watch the movies all day long. Anyways, one night the cashier got sick and got moved up to cashier. I thought “Oh my god. What am I doing?” The manager said “Don’t worry. You just push these two buttons here, to tickets at $1.98 and then you put in the five or ten dollars they give you and it’ll tell you how much change to give them.” Well I’ll tell you, I tried, but I was forty dollars short at the end of the night. They assumed I had stolen it and I got fired. I was so upset. I was in a fit of tears and told the manager “You don’t know what you’re doing. I didn’t steal it. I’m sorry, I’m just not good at math. I’m going to come back here someday and my hand and footprints will be here and you’ll be sorry.” Well, fade out, fade in, my guardian angels must have been looking out for me because where did I get my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but right in front of the Grauman’s Chinese box office! Is that serendipity or what?
Sam: You’ve worked with so many people. Some of Hollywood’s biggest legends. Some people which, as a TV and film buff, are people I truly love. Do you remember the first Hollywood celebrity that you encountered as a young person who impressed you>?
Ruta: That’s hard to say. I encountered people who weren’t celebrities yet, but later on would become them. When I was On the Town I worked with Jeanne Cooper. When I was in high school, and she was someone who kind of was around. I also knew Beverly Garland when she first started. But the first big stars were George Burns and Gracie Allen. I did their show and I was just enchanted by them. But, of course, as a child, and I was only sixteen, you think this will happen all the time. You don’t realize you should drop to your knees and count your blessings because these are not things that are going to happen all the time.
Sam: The other night on social media, I put up a poster of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and hinted to my audience that I’d be interviewing someone from the film. The response was huge. What I thought was interested that people from teenagers all the way to seniors who were excited because that movie is so important to them.
Ruta: Sam, it is so rewarding to know that my first film is one that transcended time and has been part of every generation so far and it holds up beautifully. Some pictures have an age to them but there are some pictures that remain timeless. I’m so glad to be in that one. Another movie that I did was Witness for the Prosecution. That and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are in the list of best movies ever made which I think is very exciting. I may not have a staring role, but I am a part of them.
Sam: You have a very important role in Witness for the Prosecution. Its such a pivotal moment in the film. It’s the twist, and it’s a difficult scene.
Ruta: We couldn’t publicize that I was in the film. I couldn’t go out and meet the press or so any PR because if they publicized that I was in it, they’d have had to publicize the ending and we were all supposed to sign agreements that we were not allowed to divulge the ending because it’d spoil it.
Sam: Well, Witness for the Prosecution has that weird thing, which I don’t think I’ve seen in a movie before, where a voice sounds over the closing credits telling the audience not to tell their friends the ending of the movie.
Ruta: That’s right. That made it interesting and gave people something to talk about.
Sam: One of the posters that hang in my kitchen is Funny Face. There was a time in my life that I was obsessed with Audrey Hepburn.
Ruta: I don’t blame you. Funny that you have her in your kitchen because she was the skinniest person I ever knew. She gave me a tip. She said, “Now that I can afford to eat anything I want, I order everything on the menu that strikes my fancy and I take one bite of it.” She was an adorable lady, and I loved her very much. Funny Face had a flavor, and a panache, and that’s thanks to our director Stanley Donen. He was also the director on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I just watched Audrey Hepburn on Saturday night in Charade. I love that film. Its charming, and she’s adorable with Cary Grant. I also loved How to Steal a Million. She’s charming in that too. She was adorable.
Sam: Television was really good to you. There was a time when it was believed if you were in movies, you didn’t do TV, But you made the leap to TV very early just as you began doing movies and was able to make an incredible career around it. Why was that?
Ruta: Well, it was a job. I found jobs. It’s all financial. I think some of the mistakes I made in life was financial, because I went for the money instead of the glory. But I got to working in television right of the bat, in shows like Superman and Burns and Allen, and I was good at it. Remember that those were the days where we did lots of live TV. I did Playhouse 90 and Lux Television Theatre and Matinee Theatre. You had four or five days of rehearsal and then you were live on air. If you slipped then you slipped and someone had to cover for you.
Sam: Was that stressful?
Ruta: Well, when you know you have millions of people looking at you, its really coming into an arena with a fight on your hands. You have to fight yourself and what you can do and fight the fear of slipping a line or falling down or pulling your girdle on screen. You have all that to worry about plus with hitting your mark. You have three or four cameras working at the same time you are, and you have to hit your mark for where you are going to deliver a speech or give a look or give a reaction. You have to be dead on that mark or your head could be in someone’s way if you’re over your mark. I always said doing The Lucy Show was like choreographing a ballet, because you had to know when to respond and look the right way at the right camera to pick you up and what you’re doing. On film you can do fifty takes, but going live is something else, and when you’re going live on air that’s one thing. Live on tape, for The Lucy Show, was a bit better. But live across a feed that is taking you to millions of people across the country you better have your act together.
Sam: It’s funny that you bring up The Lucy Show. During the COVID pandemic I watched a bunch of The Lucy Show for the first time in my life. I’ve always been a fan of I Love Lucy, but The Lucy Show, despite being a great show, doesn’t get the fame as her earlier show.
Ruta: I agree. It was such a quality show and had great guest stars. I always recognised Lucy as the queen. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. Desi Arzan had the smarts. He was smart about business. I mean how many people go and buy a studio? But I admired Lucy. I thought she was the end all. She was beautiful, she had great comedy timing and she was a task master. She was tough to work with because she would have no foolishness. She wanted work when your working, play when your playing. Not that she didn’t have a wild sense of humor. But she liked pros that work hard and fast and I think that’s why we remained not only working buddies but good friends also.
Sam: I would like to talk to you about your work with the Thalians. I know that it has been a huge part of your life for many many years. Can you tell me a little bit about the background of the group?
Ruta: The Thalians is named after the Greek goddess, one of the muses, who was the goddess of comedy and she also took care of straying lambs and took the in, so it seemed like an appropriate name. The original Thalians were a group of young Hollywood performers, or people in allied fields, who said “We get together and we sit around the piano and sing and dance and, well, why don’t we invite people and sell tickets and raise money for something good.” They got tired of being called ‘hard drinking, pot smoking asses’ that had nothing to contribute. So they sent out Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren to look around for a charity. Well, they found a doctor that was dealing with emotionally disturbed children. He said “An emotionally disturbed child was like a rotting apple in a barrel. It’ll affect the entire barrel if you don’t cut out the problem with that child.” So that’s how the Thalians were born. We took on the plight of emotionally disturbed children and, eighteen years later, after many shows and many stars in our group, we opened our hospital. The first building to go into the Cedars-Sinai Complex was the Thalian Mental Health Center, and we’ve now changed pediatric to geriatric as well. It was the most incredible thing for me to do this for many years, and when I think of the people that Debbie Reynolds and I called upon to be part of our event, and they came and gave our time and their money and supported us, its astounding. Now we’ve turned our focus to the plight of our returning veterans. Those beautiful young people who are so willing to put their lives on the line for us Americans and yet they fall through the cracks when they come home with emotional problems. So now we’re partnered with UCLA and Operation Mend. Op Mend heals the broken bodies, the fractured limbs, the missing arms and legs. We Thalians try to heal the broken mind and spirit, and I’m very proud of what we do. Now, of course, COVID has put everything to stop and we can’t do our big events, but I’ll ask any of your darling readers, whether they are in Canada or the USA, that if they have a dollar or two, and god knows there are a lot of places to put them, just go and look up thethalians.org and you’ll be able to red all about us, and just know everything you send will be a blessing, and those blessings come back ten fold to the donors.
Sam: I feel the Thalians are truly ahead of their time because they’ve been raising money and awareness about mental health for decades longer than people have wanted to admit it was a thing or recognize its impact on people and society. And the stigmas around it.
Ruta: For too many years, mental illness was a disease that was not talked about. It was shoved into the darkest hole in the closet and ignored by family or in polite company. It just wasn’t talked about. I feel that us Thalians should be so proud of shining a Hollywood spotlight into that dark abyss that is mental illness and shining a light of healing on it.
Sam: Was it hard, in the 50’s and 60’s, when people weren’t acknowledging mental illness, to get people behind it as a cause? Did you find it was harder for people to understand?
Ruta: Stop and think. You know, we people in North and Middle America are the most generous earth. But there was Easter Seals, and the Red Cross, and everybody was reaching into the same pocket for funding. When we were talking about mental health, sure, it was a hard sell. However, we used our Hollywood pizzazz to persuade people that this was the evening you wanted to come to because Frank Sinatra was entertaining, and Dean Martin was entertaining, and Sammy Davis was the honouree and Lucille Ball was the honoree. So what else were you going to do? People said “Wow, I’ve got to be there”: and coughed up big bucks. We though a hundred dollars a plate was big bucks when we started, but we found out that people would pay a thousand dollars a plate because it was worth it. You could deduct most of it from your taxes anyways. But let’s face it. It was a hard sell at first, but once we had the star power coming in and doing it, it got easier. Our first president was Hugh O’Brien, and then Margaret Whiting, and then Debbie Reynolds, followed by Donald O’Connor, and back to Debbie and then me. I’ve been either president or chairman of the board for fifty years.
Sam: That’s a legacy right there.
Ruta: It sure is, and if God doesn’t let me in those pearly gates I’m going to be pissed.
Sam: You’ve worked with so many people and you have a thousand stories. At what point did you decide it was time to sit down and write a book?
Ruta: Well, there wasn’t one thing that happened. I’ve been talking about writing a book for ten years. It will be due, basically, to a lovely young man from Texas named Barry Rogers. He works in television, and when I’d come in to do a show Barry would always interview me. He said, you tell such wonderful stories that you need to do a book,. You need to share these stories. Well, he asked if I really want to do it and I said yes, I’d do it. He hopped on a plane and came out with his tape recorder and sat me down in my library and said start talking. Well, I talked and he recorded everything and everything got printed. SO you can imagine what kind of editing I had to do. Well he came out several times and did this, and we had a book. So there you are, and Barry is responsible for this. It was the motivation to make me actually do it, because I’m not an author. But I have stories to tell, and I’ve had experiences which I think my audience will enjoy me sharing because, as you know, I didn’t make fans. I thank god for talk shows and game shows. I made friends. These friends, who come to see me, it was never Mrs. Lee, would you sign this. It was Hi Ruta Lee,! When you’re finished would you like to come to dinner? And that’s the nicest thing that can happen, to know that somebody in your audience that gives a damn about you one way or another. I am so honored by my friends rather than my fans.
As vivacious as I expected to be, I can’t even begin to express how endearing Ruta Lee is to me. A fantastic lady with an incredible career, in our talk we only began to scratch the surface of the many stories there are to be told. Fortunately, this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from Ruta, and once Consider Your Ass Kissed is released we will have Ruta Lee back to talk more about her book and the stories within. Personally, I can’t wait to talk more to Ruta Lee. I could just talk to her forever. Stay tuned because there is more on its way.
In the meantime, take a moment and visit The Thalians web-site and if you can, please give what you can to an important cause and a great organization. Mental health is an important issue to me, and The Thalians have been fighting for the marliginalized and misunderstood for a longer time than society has acknowledged the issue. A few dollars can make a difference, so please consider supporting The Thaliens.