She became famous after the Second World War, when she was already in middle age, particularly in roles as sensible, plain-speaking working class characters. Her most famous role was one of her earliest, as Birdie, the maid to Bette Davis's Margo in 'All About Eve' in 1950.
BiographyThelma Ritter was born on February 14, 1902, in Brooklyn, New York into a comfortable middle class home. Thelma Ritter was her birth name. She was a natural child performer and enjoyed reciting monologues to fellow students at grade school in Brooklyn. At Forest Hills High School she performed in school plays and her ambition from an early age was to be a stage actress. After leaving school Thelma performed with stock companies and trained in her chosen profession at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
She took a variety of jobs with small roles on stage and radio and whilst playing stock in New Jersey, met her future husband, fellow actor, Joseph Moran whom she married in 1927. Neither of them made much initial impact on the theatrical world and Moran left acting in the mid 1930s to join a marketing company, eventually to become vice-president of the advertising agency, Young and Rubicam.
Thelma also briefly left acting to raise their two children, Monica and Joseph Jnr., and resumed her career in 1940 working principally as a radio performer. She made several appearances in 'Big Town', 'Mr. District Attorney' and 'The Aldrich Family' and read regularly for the Theater Guild on the Air.
Hollywood SuccessThelma's big break came relatively late in life. In 1946 when she was 44, director George Seaton, an old family friend, offered her a small role in his forthcoming movie, 'Miracle on 34th Street'. The film came out in 1947 and was an immediate success. It has since become recognised as a classic and a perennial seasonal favorite. Thelma had only an uncredited role as a tired mother doing Christmas shopping at Macys but her performance made a big impression on Darryl F. Zanuck, boss of Twentieth Century Fox, who demanded to see more of her. It was the start of a wonderful movie career.
Her second role was also uncredited, in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives in 1949, but it led to her third movie and first Oscar nomination for her performance as Birdie in Mankiewicz's 'All About Eve' in 1950. Performing with strong actresses like Bette Davis and Celeste Holm seemed to bring out Thelma's own best qualities and she gives a strong performance with wonderful comedic touches.
She received a second nomination for Best Supporting Actress the following year for her work in the screwball comedy 'The Mating Season' with Gene Tierney and John Lund. She also received Oscar nominations for the next two years consecutively, for 'With a Song in My Heart' in 1952 and 'Pickup on South Street' in 1953, making an astonishing four nominations in four years.
She continued to choose her scripts well and she appeared in many successful movies during the rest of her career including 'Titanic' in 1953, 'Rear Window' in 1954 in which she plays James Stewart's nurse, 'Pillow Talk' in 1959, opposite Doris Day and 'Birdman of Alcatraz' in 1962 as mother of the Burt Lancaster character. She received her fifth and sixth Supporting Actress nominations for 'Pillow Talk' and 'Birdman of Alcatraz'.
Later CareerThelma continued to give top quality performances to the end of her career. She appeared in more successful movies such as 'How the West Was Won' in 1962, 'Move Over Darling' in 1963 and 'The Incident' in 1967 with Martin Sheen on his movie debut.
From the mid 1950's Thelma happily embraced the new medium of television and became a regular performer in dramatic series such as Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1955, General Electric Theater in 1960 and Wagon Train in 1962. Her final public appearance was on the TV variety show The Jerry Lewis Show in 1968, just before her death.
Thelma Ritter died of a heart attack in New York City, on February 5, 1968. She was 66 years old.
Thelma Ritter Academy AwardsSix Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... All About Eve (1950)
Best Supporting Actress ... The Mating Season (1951)
Best Supporting Actress ... With a Song in My Heart(1952)
Best Supporting Actress ... Pickup on South Street (1953)
Best Supporting Actress ... Pillow Talk (1959)
Best Supporting Actress ... Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Thelma Ritter Filmography
Miracle on 34th Street (uncredited)
Call Northside 777 (uncredited)
A Letter To Three Wives (uncredited)
City Across the River
Father Was a Fullback