Entertainment » Celebrities

'Consider Your Ass Kissed' — Actress Ruta Lee on Her Career & Upcoming Autobiography

by Steve Duffy
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Nov 6, 2019

Those with long memories, or regularly watch the television nostalgia network ME TV, will likely remember actress Ruta Lee. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was a glamorous presence in guest roles on major television series — "Maverick," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Rawhide," "The Wild, Wild West" and, famously, "The Twilight Zone" in a celebrated episode "A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain," where she played a woman whose elderly husband undergoes a scientific experiment and then ages backward.

Lee got her start working as an usherette at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, but was fired. She had better luck as a Hollywood starlet, finding roles in two now-classic musicals, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Funny Face." She played Tyrone Power's girlfriend in "Witness for the Prosecution" and Frank Sinatra's in "Sergeant's Three." Upon seeing the blonde Lee for the first time, her "Prosecution" co-star Marlene Dietrich, also a blonde, immediately demanded that Lee be made a brunette.

Ambitious and beautiful, Lee was dedicated to her career from its onset. "I believe that show business means business," she told an interviewer in 1961. "Sure, keeping busy has its drawbacks. It cuts down on my dating, but I'm an actress who has to act."

She made international headlines in 1964 confronting the Russians (and leader Nikita Khrushchev) to release her 90-year-old grandmother. Two years later, she was released to West.

When her television roles dried up in the early 1970s, Lee became a game show regular, familiar to audiences of "The Hollywood Squares," "You Don't Say," and "The Match Game." Then television roles returned and she appeared on such hits as "The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," and "Murder She Wrote." In 1997 she appeared as Estelle Parson's girlfriend on an episode of "Roseanne," and continued to work into this century on a number of series and television movies, and on stage in productions of "Steel Magnolias" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

For some 50 years she has been involved with The Thalians, a charitable organization dedicated to mental health causes. She has also served as commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Environmental Quality and as a member of the Economic Development Board, acted as a national spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, was honored Woman of the Year by B'nai B'rith, and received the Humanitarian Award from the Beverly Hills Business Women's Association as well as top honors from the City of Hope.

Now Lee is putting the final touches on "Consider Your Ass Kissed," her autobiography, set for release in 2020. EDGE spoke to the vivacious Lee about her book, her career, and just whom she would cast as herself in a biopic.

The Writing Bug

EDGE: Why is now the time to release your memoirs?

Ruta Lee: It's because I am coming to the end of a very interesting show business life. I am not a leading lady anymore. I am too old for it, even though I still feel like one. After thinking about it for the last 10 years, it just finally seemed right. A dear friend of mine in the public relations business said to me, "We have laughed and scratched over your stories every time we are together. You have such wonderful tales to tell, they ought to be written down." I am glad to share these stories with all my wonderful fans. I sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, mean the title in the most affectionate, loving ,and appreciative way which is "Considered Your Ass Kissed." It is an old expression that I have used forever in the process of thanking the many people who have supported me and the causes that I have taken on.

EDGE: Anything surprising about you revealed?

Ruta Lee: I suppose a lot of things will be surprising. They are things that I have not shared before with my fans. They're not surprising to me, but they may be surprising to someone else. I am thankful to the game shows and the talk shows because I don't think I made fans, but friends. I am hoping that these darling people that have seen me on TV or in a movie will pick up my book.

The Acting Bug

EDGE: How did you catch the acting bug?

Ruta Lee: I was born with it. I came out of my mother's womb wanting to be on stage. She said I was an exceeding precocious child. I loved everybody, and I still do. I love my audiences. When she would take me for a walk, I would say "hello" to everyone I passed. I would even stop and kiss the drunks on the street. My first acting experiences were in church and school. My parents were from Lithuania and wanted to come to America, where the streets were paved in gold, but the quotas were closed in 1929, so they ended up in Canada. A huge thanks goes to my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jackson, whom I am forever thankful for. She is the one that told my mother that I needed to perform, and because of that my mother thought I was Lithuania's answer to Shirley Temple. After the war, we got visas to come to the U.S. and settled in Hollywood.

EDGE: How did you choose which projects you would work on throughout your career?

Ruta Lee: Oh, honey! Very rarely did I choose. I was grateful to get anything offered to me. In the heydays of television, there were about six of us who were the major leading ladies for every television show. The casting director held great sway. The casting director would read the script and say to the producer, "Do you want a blonde, brunette or a redhead?" The casting directors knew who would be a perfect fit for each role. I had to audition for the first few times, but then after that, I would just receive a call.

EDGE: 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: I did have to audition for this, and that was one of my greatest memories. I had to dance for Stanley Donen, who directed it. I also had to dance for choreographer Michael Kidd. I don't know whether it was my good dancing or my mother, who was on her knees praying in the church across the street from the casting office, but I got that job and it was one of the happiest times in my life. I was dancing with some of the best dancers in the world. I was amazed that I was getting to work with this wonderful cast of actors: Howard Keel, Matt Mattox, Russ Tamblyn, Jane Powell and Julie Newmar. Pretty good for my first Hollywood movie, and I thought what the hell am I doing here.

Her Leading Men

EDGE: Which character among the many you've played are you proudest of?

Ruta Lee: Gosh! I have done a lot. I would have to say "Molly Brown." The first time I played her was in Fort Worth, Texas, and the audience was great. In attendance was Meredith Wilson, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show. He came to see it, and then put into print that of all the Mollys I was his favorite and if I had been playing it on Broadway it would still be running. I thought that was the finest compliment that I could ever receive.

EDGE: You have worked with some remarkable leading men, including Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, James Garner, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. Did you have a favorite?

Ruta Lee: Oh, yes! I love them all, but I have got to say Clint Eastwood happens to be my all-time favorite. Tyrone Power was "woo, woo, woo." One of the nicest people in the whole world was Howard Keel. I had the most fun in my life with one of the most generous men that I have ever known, Frank Sinatra. It was so much fun to be his leading lady in "Sergeants Three." Working with the Rat Pack is something that I will never forget. I was too young and stupid to realize how blessed I was.

EDGE: Tell us about the organization "Thalians," which you co-founded with Debbie Reynolds?

Ruta Lee: We were a group of young actors that got tired of being called "hard-drinking, pot-smoking, and sex-minded idiots who had nothing to contribute to society." I decided that we should put a show together and raise money for a worthwhile cause. Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield canvassed for some ideas and came back to the meeting the following month, and very crazily said, "Well, we hate to tell you that all the major diseases had been taken." They found a doctor who was helping emotionally disturbed children, so the Thalians started helping. Over the years, we have raised millions and millions of dollars. After 50 years, we changed our focus to our returning veterans. We partner with Operation Mend at UCLA. They heal the broken bodies and we take care of the broken mind, spirit and sometimes the broken heart.

EDGE: Who would you get to play you in a biopic about yourself?

Ruta Lee: Oh, wow! I am planning on writing another book about the story of getting my grandmother out of Siberia. I dedicated a chapter about it in this book, but it really deserves its own book. I have thought about who could play me. There are so many wonderful actors at there, I am really not sure. Meryl Streep comes to mind first, but Meryl is no longer young either. I was very young when I went over there to retrieve her. It was quite a story. Gosh, you have really given me something to think about.

EDGE: What's one thing you want to do that you have not done yet?

Ruta Lee: I am still waiting for Steven Spielberg to call and put me in a movie that will get me at least an Oscar nomination. I have always said that I want 10 Oscars, 1 husband, and a happy life. I have my one wonderful husband, who has given me a very happy life.

For more information on Ruta Lee, please visit www.rutalee.com


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook