Sunday, April 14, 2019

An Interview with Ruta Lee: A Lively Conversation about Seven Brides, Marlene Dietrich, Perry Mason, Khrushchev...and More!

Ruta Lee made her big screen acting debut in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1953 at the age of eighteen. She has been performing ever since! Her film roles have run the gamut from portraying Tyrone Power's girlfriend in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) to starring opposite the whole Rat Pack in Sergeants 3 (1962). She has guest-starred in dozens of television shows, including multiple appearances in classics such as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and The Andy Griffith Show. She has also gained acclaim as a stage actress with credits ranging from Hello, Dolly to Steel Magnolias.  Ruta Lee is a great believer in volunteerism and serves as the Chairman of the Board Emeritus for The Thalians, a non-profit organization that "raises funds to educate and enlighten the world about mental illness." She recently returned from Lithuania where she was the keynote speaker at a women's conference.

Café:  Your first movie role was as one of the brides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. What are some of your memories from making that classic musical?

Ruta Lee:  There are so many memories that it would probably take four weeks of us sitting down and talking about them. I think the best part was my mother, who took me to the audition, going into the church across from casting at MGM and getting on her knees and praying. I, on the other hand, went into the audition in my little ballet tights and shoes and danced for the choreographer. He told me to do a little ballet and do a little a jazz. Then, he said: "How about a little something folksy?" Well, I'm of Lithuanian descent and if there's one thing I know, it's a good Lithuanian polka. So, I did my polka for him. I'm not sure if it was my polka or my mother's prayers, but I got the job.

Café:  In Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, you played Tyrone Power's girlfriend. What was it like working with Wilder, Power, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich?

Ruta, as a brunette, and Tyrone Power.
Ruta Lee:  First of all, Billy Wilder was probably one of the most innately funny people that God put on this Earth. He has a wonderfully wild sense of humor. It showed up in a great deal of his work, like Some Like It Hot. When I first came into Witness for the Prosecution, it was several weeks after production had started. The studio had taken two huge sound stages and built a replica of the Old Bailey courtroom to three-quarters scale, which was incredible. I had been warned by the make-up department, who said: "Listen, Ruta, Charles Laughton is sometimes a nasty old gay who doesn't like young girls, so just do your work, know your lines, and everything will be fine." So, I came onto the set, in my little tight dress and perky hat, and everyone is sitting around in British tea circles. No one is saying hello to me or welcome. For the first time in my life, I wished the floor would open up and swallow me--that kind of a feeling. And, as I'm standing there, somebody walks up behind me, smacks me on my butt, and sends me flying across the stage. I turn around and it's Charles Laughton. He says: "That's the best damn ass I've seen in a long time." And I became his baby doll. He would sulk if I didn't come in to say good morning to him before anybody else. He taught me to play all kinds of games like Perquackey and Scrabble; he was quite the game player. He and his wife Elsa (Lanchester) would sometimes invite me to lunch in their dressing room. She was trying to watch his weight...ha, ha! They helped me with my middle British accent. High English and Cockney are rather easy, but that middle English was tougher. They were the dearest, most wonderful people and I will love Charles Laughton until the day I die. As for handsome Ty Power, I adored him. He was a lovely, lovely man and very sweet. I will never forget telling him that I hadn't seen Blood and Sand, which was a terribly important movie in his career. He arranged a screening of it for me. Then, of course, there was Marlene Dietrich. Marlene is one of the most professional people that I've ever known, but she was not exactly thrilled with young girls. When she saw my screen test for Witness of the Prosecution, she said "nein" when she saw the blonde hair and I was a brunette overnight. She was very cool and had little to do with me. She was a little bit warmer when I saw her in later years. Boy, though, I learned a lot from her. All you had to do was watch her. She knew about cinematography and lighting and what worked for her and what didn't. She'd say to our cinematographer: "I believe I'd like that inky under my chin here because I could use a little more light." He'd say: "Oh, Marlene, you don't need it. You're well lit. I'm taking care of you. We don't even have an inky." And she'd say "I do" and she'd open up a big trunk and there was the inky she needed for a light. I wish all of us had taken lessons from her because she really knew what she was doing.
(Note: An inky, or inky dink, is a small light of 100-250 watts.)

Café:  You were the female lead in Sergeants 3 (1962), which starred Frank Sinatra and the whole Rat Pack. How would you describe that experience?

On the set with Frank Sinatra.
Ruta Lee:  The most fun of my life. We laughed all the way through making that film. Poor (director) John Sturges kept trying to get our attention. I tried to do all my work properly, but you could not help but laugh because Dean Martin is a truly funny man. Frank is a funny guy, Joey Bishop was a funny guy, and Sammy is one of the most delicious people ever. It was one big lark. And, of course, they all treated me like their little, baby sister that had to be taken care of. I thought, oh hell, I could have had an affair with all of them and written books...but I didn't.

Café:  You guest starred in almost every classic TV series in the 1960s (and many beyond that). What were some of your favorite guest star roles?

As a "bad girl" in Twilight Zone.
Ruta Lee:  I think that playing a bitchy, little tramp in The Twilight Zone ("A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain") was one of my favorites. When I got through doing a scene, there came a big round of applause from the crew members up on the catwalk. Later, when I finished work that day, they said the applause was because I was good and reminded the crew of their favorite: Carole Lombard. I thought, wow, what a compliment! I also believe I did a good job in a Bonanza episode ("A Woman Lost"), but it was before everyone's agent nominated them for an Emmy. I could have won one with the right publicity. One of the great learning experiences for me was the stuff I did on Perry Mason. Gail Patrick was a beautiful star from the 1930s and into the 1940s, who became a producer. She would hire me a lot. It was always very interesting to me that there was this exquisitely beautiful woman who was not afraid of young girls and not afraid of the competition. I did at least five Perry Mason episodes and that was almost like going to acting school. Working with that cast was absolutely wonderful. I could also say that about the work I did at Warner Bros. One of the mistakes that I made back then was that I said no when Warner Bros. wanted to put me under contract. The contract would have paid me $300 a week whereas I was doing one to two shows a month for $750 a week. But when you go under contract to a studio, you have a powerful machine behind you. You get lessons in whatever you need. You get a publicity department behind you. You get put into roles without having to audition for them. Still, I was very grateful, because I got to do shows like Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye. I was a fixture at Warner Bros. The house that I'm sitting in now I call the "House that Jack (Warner) Built" because my Warner Bros. salaries and residuals helped make the payments.

Café:  When we interviewed Julie Adams in 2013, she also said how much she enjoyed guest starring on Perry Mason.

Ruta Lee:  I don't know if this happened with Julie, but I would get invited as a guest to dinner parties, not every week, but maybe twice a year at Gail Patrick's home. She was married to a man named Cornwell, or Corny, Jackson. I just felt so honored to be among the elite of Hollywood and listen to their stories. It was a great honor and I will never forget Gail Patrick for that.

Café:  Were there any actors that you particularly enjoyed working with?

Ruta Lee:  I loved working with everybody. I am a very easy person to get along with and I enjoy people and their stories. Needless to say, Frank, Dean, and the boys were just the best. Jimmy Garner was great fun to work with on Maverick.

Café:  You have also appeared in a number of stage plays. What were some of your favorite stage roles and why?

Ruta Lee in Hello, Dolly.
Ruta Lee:  My altogether favorite is one of the hardest roles to play and that's The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I played that role for the first time in Fort Worth, Texas, where I went on to perform it for 40 years. Because of Molly Brown, I became the darling of Fort Worth. The press would write that summer is here and Ruta is here, so everyone can enjoy their summer! It was a great role for me and the best part was the composer of the show, Meredith Wilson, came to see Molly Brown with his wife on opening night. When Meredith was interviewed by the press, he said: "Ruta is the best Molly of them all. If she had played it on Broadway, it would still be running." I also love Anne Get Your Gun, Bells Are RingingHello, Dolly, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is the easiest and still a great role in which to strut your stuff.

Café:  You and your husband, business executive Webb Lowe, Jr., celebrated your 43rd wedding anniversary in February. How did you meet and what is the secret to your long marriage?

Ruta and her husband Webb.
Ruta Lee:  I'll answer the second question first. The secret to our long marriage is having a great sense of humor. My husband taught me something the first year we were married. As a new young bride, I'd get upset and distressed if he didn't hear what I had to say or didn't bring flowers on an occasion. He said to me: "Let me ask you something. At the end of the day, will this be important? At the end of the week? At the end of the month? At the end of the year, will this still be important and will you still be thinking about it?" I realized that nothing in life is worth stressing over. I'm not talking about serious tragedies, but the usual daily routine. If you can't just laugh it off, then you don't need to be married. Now, as to how I met him, that's a fun story. I had promised the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) that I'd be its guest star at an event in Naples, Florida. At the time, I was doing a show in Dallas, which was supposed to close on Sunday and then I'd go to Naples on Monday. The theater owners came to me and asked if I could play another week since my shows were selling out. I agreed to do two shows on Sunday, go to Naples, and return to Dallas. I hadn't been feeling well, but I threw myself together, flew to Miami, and ran across the tarmac to a small plane which took me to Naples. I put on the feather boas and long eyelashes and made my big appearance at the LPGA. The next day, of course, I had to return to Dallas for a show and I had a fluey thing going on. So, I put a babushka on my head, big sunglasses, and not a stitch of make-up. It's hot in Florida, so I carried my fur coat as I ran across the tarmac. I go over to American Airlines and they tell me it's a turnaround flight and that they'll pre-board me as soon as it gets cleaned up. So, I was leaning against the counter, my head in my hands, and looking down at the floor. I see a great pair of Gucci loafers coming towards me. And I look up a little further and see nice slacks with a crease on them. I look up a little higher to see a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons. A little further, there's a great tie. And then I see a shock of silver hair and a face that's a cross between Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. I said: "Be still my heart!" And he kept walking towards me...and then right past my counter and down the hall. I thought, oh shoot, we're just ships that pass in the night. So, the airline pre-boards me and I'm piling all my stuff under my seat and on the seat next to me. And all of a sudden, I look down and the same pair of shoes are standing there. And he said: "Is this seat taken?" And I said--for the last time in my life--no. And he leaned over and said: "Hello, my name is Webb Lowe." And I said: "Hello, my name is Ruta Lee. And we should be married, because then my name would be Ruta Lee Lowe and we could open a Chinese laundry."

Café:  That's a charming story! Now, I've read where you personally contacted Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, when he was the Premier of the Soviet Union, to secure the release of your grandmother from an internment camp. Can you provide the fascinating details?

Ruta and family reunited.
Ruta Lee:  I had been trying for years to get my grandmother out of Siberia where she had been deported. She spent fifteen years there. Most of my family was deported to Siberia. No one knows why. We're not talking about brilliant, educated teachers and writers. These were peasant folk who tilled the land and grew their own vegetables to eat. My grandmother was finally permitted to go back to Lithuania with some of the family and we received word that she was dying. We tried to keep them alive by sending packages. You could only send forty-pound packages and the contents were dictated by the Communists...one pound of coffee, one pound of lard, one pair of socks...that kind  of thing. I came home from work one day and my mother was in a state of tears. We had received a letter, though much of it was blacked out, and my grandmother was thanking us for sending clothes for her to be buried in. She had been to a doctor and was told she was going to die. I was so distressed. She was my one remaining grandparent and I had never met any of them. I went out with friends that night and the more wine they poured, the more obvious it became that I should pick up the phone and call Khrushchev--so I did. In those days, there was person-to-person calling and you didn't pay for the call if you didn't get your party. If you got your party, you paid maybe twice as much. I kept calling and calling and the American operator would talk to the Russian operator who would talk with the Kremlin operator, who would get back to me and say: "Nyet, nyet, nyet." In the meantime, I called the Russian Embassy in Washington to get permission to go to Lithuania and I'd get "nyet" there, too. Finally, the Kremlin operator called back and said: "Mr. Khrushchev doesn't speak English. You speak to interpreter to Mr. Khrushchev." I remembered a good-looking young man who traveled with Khrushchev when he was here and had translated for him. Anyway, I spoke with the interpreter and he said: "Miss Lee, we would be very happy to have you travel to the Soviet Union. We know you here. We see your films here. Why don't you speak to your congressman about it?" And I said: "Excuse me, sir. What the hell does my congressman have to do with my traveling to your country? This is not a political matter. It is a matter of the heart. What are you going to do about it?" And he said: "In half an hour, present yourself again to the Soviet Embassy in Washington." I thought, oh no, here we go again! I hung up and a half-hour later I called the embassy. This time, I was connected immediately to the first secretary, who was Lithuanian. Of course, he knew me because I was the one doing the Voice of America broadcasts against Communism. It's an absolute miracle that within 48 hours, my parents and I were on a plane headed to Moscow and then to Lithuania. They took us to my grandmother and six months later, I was given permission to bring her and an aunt back to the United States. She lived for two years, two months, and two days.

Café:  That's an amazing story.

Ruta Lee:  I've been writing a book for the last ten years. One of these days, I'll hopefully get it together and finish it. Maybe you'll help me out by telling all your readers to go buy Ruta's book!

Café:  I will certainly do that. Now, I know you're passionate about volunteerism. You, along with other stars such as Debbie Reynolds, have been deeply involved with a charity called The Thalians for many years. Can you tell about its mission and about how others can help?

Ruta at a Thalians event.
Ruta Lee:  First of all, everyone can go online to thalians.org and read about us there. It all started in 1955 with a group of young actors who got tired of being called hard-drinking idiots who had nothing to contribute. We'd get together to laugh and play at parties, so we decided we should sell tickets and make a few dollars for a charity. So, we sent Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren to find out what charities were available. They came back a few months later and said that all the big charities were taken. But they had found a doctor who worked with emotionally-disturbed children at Mount Sinai Hospital. At first, we raised funds for the children and then, eighteen years later, we built a clinic and went from pediatric to geriatric care. We were very proud that this small group of Hollywood performers had shone a spotlight down into that dark pit, which is mental illness, and tried to bring it into the light of healing. Many years later, we changed our focus to returning veterans, who came back scarred not only physically but mentally. We joined up with a group at UCLA called Operation Mend. It deals with the broken arms and faces and we deal with the broken spirits through The Thalians. We ask everybody who has $5, $50, or $5 million to please contribute to The Thalians. We have raised millions of dollars by doing huge shows starring the stars of all-stars and they all did it gratis.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming events that you'd like to tell our readers about?

Ruta Lee:  Yes, The Thalians has an event at the Music Center in Los Angeles on the 18th of May. It's a wonderful luncheon and not a terribly expensive one. If you go to our website, you can read about it and call our office for more information.

Café:  Ruta, you've been a highly entertaining and informative interview subject. Thank you for all of your charity work and for all you've brought to classic movie and TV fans throughout the world.

Ruta Lee:  That's very kind of you. Thank you and all of your readers, Rick. God bless you all.

10 comments:

  1. Sunday morning with Ruta Lee! What a marvelous storyteller she is!

    PS: I'm planning a Perry Mason marathon for next weekend and had wondered who or what to build it around. Ta-da, Miss Ruta Lee.

    Thank you so much.

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  2. Such an impressive actress and an even more impressive human being! Great interview filled with sage advice!

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  3. Gail Patrick's husband "Corny" Jackson was Earl Stanley Gardner's agent.so at least that opened the door for her to exec produce Perry Mason. But she succeeded on her own talent. She hired as many Hollywood vets as she could - some maybe for the last time.

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  4. What a great interview, Rick (and Ruta)! I've loved Ruta Lee forever, knowing her best from her omnipresence on series TV back in the day. It was later that I became aware of her film roles. A nice little plum role in Witness for the Prosecution, one of those classics that bestows a kind of immortality: "filmortality." Best wishes and blessings, Ruta!

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  5. What a fabulous interview for a stunning lady whose career began with prayer and a polka! Her stories about having to be made a brunette, her introduction to Charles Laughton, and Marlene’s inky have elevated “Witness for the Prosecution” to an entirely new level for me. I absolutely love the photos, and especially from “The Twilight Zone.” Ruta Lee sounds like she had a wonderful career and enjoyed those she worked with dearly. It was really fun hearing how she met her husband and listened to some very good advice. I am really proud of her for being bold and speaking on behalf of her grandmother and family and am so thankful she had those precious years with her. It was interesting to learn about her passionate work for The Thalians. Thank you for this excellent interview, Rick, and a special thanks to Miss Lee for sharing her life with us!

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  6. Being a fan of Ironside, she appeared with Pernell Roberts post Bonanza in the episode "To Kill A Cop".

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  7. What fabulous stories, and I love the chutzpah it took to call Khrushchev and liberate her grandmother. That makes me admire her even more.

    Great interview, Rick. You should have your own late night talk show!

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  8. Terrific interview! I pray that Ruta finishes and publishes her autobiography--she worked with some of the "greats" and undoubtedly has even more great stories from her long career.

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  9. What a generous interview! Loved reading this

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  10. Wonderful interview! I first encountered her as a kid, when I saw her in 1973 on an NBC game show called "High Rollers" with Alex Trebek. My stepmom and I always thought she was very cordial and helpful to the contestants. I wrote to Ms. Lee a few years ago and told her this. She wrote back and told me how "High Rollers" had recently been a clue on "Jeopardy!" and nobody had any idea what Alex Trebek was talking about. She does indeed have a sense of humor about herself!

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