Thelma Ritter

Thelma Ritter. TCM Overview.

TCM Overview:

With her salty humor, crackling New York accent and seen-it-all demeanor, Thelma Ritter was one of the most accomplished and dependable character actresses in American film.

Throughout a 21-year screen career she worked numerous variations on her standard character of a wry, salt-of-the-earth everywoman and was equally convincing as lowly maid or wealthy dowager. She performed particularly well with other actresses and was often cast as sidekick to a female star. Ritter was Oscar®-nominated six times as Best Supporting Actress but, in what seems a major injustice, never won the award itself.

Thelma Ritter
Thelma Ritter

Born in Brooklyn in 1902, Ritter trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and acted in stock theater and radio and in small roles on the Broadway stage before taking a break from her career to raise two children by her husband, actor/advertising executive Joseph Moran.

She resumed acting on radio and made an impression in uncredited roles in her first three films, playing a weary Christmas shopper in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), a policeman’s secretary in Call Northside 777 (1948) and a beer-guzzling neighbor in A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, was impressed enough to sign Ritter to a contract. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the writer-director of Letter, remembered Ritter when creating All About Eve (1950) and wrote the plum part of Bertie, Bette Davis’s wisecracking dresser, especially for her. The film brought Ritter her first Oscar® nomination.

In Perfect Strangers, Ritter is very funny as a ditzy juror hearing a murder case. She made the most of her larger-than-usual roles in The Mating Season, in which she is a woman who pretends to be her son’s maid to impress her wealthy new in-laws; and The Model and the Marriage Broker, in which she shares the title roles with Jeanne Crain and plays the straight-talking matchmaker.

Ritter won her second nomination for The Mating Season and her third for the biopic With a Song in My Heart, playing the no-nonsense physical therapist of Susan Hayward as singer Jane Froman.

Ritter also was nominated for the tough film noir Pickup on South Street, in which she has one of her most affecting roles as a street peddler/stool pigeon who comes to no good end. Her touching performance has been described as “the soul of this film.” She lends her droll presence to the shipwreck drama Titanic, playing a fictionalized version of survivor Molly Brown; and to the musical Daddy Long Legs as Fred Astaire’s perceptive, plain-spoken secretary. Yet another nomination came for Pillow Talk, with Ritter cast as Doris Day’s hard-drinking housekeeper.

Ritter memorably lent poignant support to Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in the early parts of The Misfits (1961) as the sidekick of Monroe’s troubled character. In The Second Time Around, she plays an eccentric rancher who hires young widow Debbie Reynolds as her only ranch hand.


Reynolds and Ritter are reunited in another Western, How the West Was Won, the Cinerama epic in which Debbie plays a dance-hall gal headed for California and Thelma is her husband-hunting companion.

Ritter won her sixth and final Oscar® nomination for Birdman of Alcatraz, playing the possessive mother of convicted murderer/bird expert Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster). Ritter appeared in three amusing comedies in 1963: For Love or Money, as the screwball mother of Mitzi Gaynor; A New Kind of Love, as the love-starved assistant of Joanne Woodward; and Move Over, Darling, as the sympathetic mother-in-law of Doris Day.

Ritter’s final film performance, like her first, was a brief cameo – in What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), a comedy starring George Peppard and Mary Tyler Moore. Ritter, who died in 1969, also had several television credits and enjoyed a Broadway triumph in New Girl in Town (1957), winning a Tony award as Best Actress in a Musical in a tie with her costar, Gwen Verdon.

The above TCM Overview can also be accessed online here.

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