February 17, 1923 – Kathleen Freeman:
“Comedy is more difficult. It’s very easy to make people cry.”
Kathleen Freeman appeared in films, television, and on stage in a career that spanned six decades. Diminutive, yet stout, she specialized in playing wisecracking maids, steely mothers, acerbic secretaries, tough teachers, stern nurses, hard-hearted battle-axes, belligerent landlords, nosy neighbors and irritating relatives, almost always for laughs.
Freeman began her career when she was just a toddler as part of her parents’ Vaudeville act. Freeman:
“Vaudeville was dead by the time I came on the scene. When the bottom really dropped out Ma and Pa took me to Los Angeles to try their luck in Hollywood.”
After graduating with a degree in Music from UCLA, she became a founding member L.A.’s The Circle Players (now the El Centro Theatre) along with Beverly Garland and Alan J. Pakula. The Circle Players directors included Charles Chaplin, Charles Laughton and Robert Morley.
Freeman made her film debut in Naked City (1948) starring Jerry Lewis. Her single line was: “Didja read about the bathtub murder?” That same year she played the nurse in The Saxon Charm, a film noir with Robert Montgomery and Susan Hayward, and then another nurse role in Behind Locked Doors, with Lucille Bremer, also noir. I see a pattern starting.
Freeman was soon making as many as a dozen films a year. She appeared in great films such as A Place In The Sun (1951) and The Bad And The Beautiful (1952), along with stinkers such as The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), very possibly the worst film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
You might know her best as Phoebe Dinsmore, the frustrated vocal coach who tries to get the vain, cunning, and shallow silent film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) to properly to enunciate in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s classic Singin’ In The Rain (1952).
She made 10 films with Jerry Lewis, in the mode of the Marx Brothers’ Margaret Dumont, the perfect comic foil and friendly adversary, though Freeman was no hoity-toity dame like Dumont.
She and Lewis became lifelong friends: Freeman:
“I gave him my father’s spats. In turn he gave me all sorts of wonderful things, including a solid gold statue of himself dressed as a clown.”
Lewis said of her:
“Kathleen Freeman was as talented a comic genius as Patsy Kelly, Lucille Ball and Judy Holiday.”
She made 100 films, sometimes in extremely brief roles, but, Freeman said:
“I think I’m a living example of the fact that you don’t have to be in every inch of a film or play to be important to it.”
Among her more conspicuous later film roles were as Sister Mary Stigmata in The Blues Brothers (1980); a bellicose landlord in Dragnet (1987); and hoodlum Fred Ward’s tough-as-nails mother in Naked Gun 33: The Final Insult (1994). She also appeared in Innerspace (1987); as Microwave Marge in Gremlins 2 (1996); and as Miss Olin in Hocus Pocus (1993). Her final film was as the voice of an old woman in Shrek (2001).
I was introduced to her by my friend, producer Robert Fryer, who cast her as Bobby Dean Loner in the insanely nutty Myra Breckinridge (1970). I gushed about her performance in Singin’ In The Rain. She came across asa warm and relaxed, but quiet, unlike her boisterous film roles. Freeman told me that she worked “with every tough bitch in this industry”. And, about Myra Breckinridge:
“Mae West was the most incredible phenomenon I ever encountered. There were fireworks between her and Raquel Welch and I made darn sure that I wasn’t caught up in the cross-fire.”
Freeman made her television debut in an episode of Buckskin in 1958 and went on to appear in almost every sort of popular television show: sitcoms, thrillers, variety hours, westerns, over the next four decades, including regular roles on The Donna Reed Show, as Mrs. Wilgus, the busybody next door neighbor, with Howard McNear as her husband, Wilbur; and on Hogan’s Heroes as Frau Gertrude Linkmeyer, General Hansi Burkhalter’s sister, who had the hots for Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer). Plus, guest spots on stuff such as: Mister Ed (1958-1966), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), I Dream Of Jeannie (1965-1970), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), Batman (1966-68), High Chaparral (1967-1971), Kojak (1973-1978), The Golden Girls (1985-1992).
There was never a point in 50 years where it could be said that she was idle; Freeman was a working actor, never a star, and she liked to work. She quipped that if she had been a beauty like Hedy Lamarr she would have been obsolete by 50-years-old. Instead, as a character actor, Freeman kept working. She never complained about the roles she was cast in, and she was upbeat about living the actor’s life:
“It’s all about heading out on the same boat on the same ocean, hitting the same waves, if we can. Nothing is new in Hollywood. Everything is recycled from some time or another.”
Freeman taught an actors’ workshop and produced plays featuring her students. She was also a member of the California Artists’ Radio Theatre, which recorded live performances of classics for the soon to be defunded National Public Radio (NPR).
On stage, she toured as Miss Hannigan in Annie. Her first Broadway appearance was in Georges Feydeau’s 13 Rue de l’Amore (1978), opposite Louis Jourdan. In 1999, in L.A., Freeman did a one-woman show titled Are You Somebody?, the question autograph seekers always asked her.
Ironically, she finally became a big, celebrated star in her last role, the wisecracking piano player Jeanette in the musical The Full Monty (2000) on Broadway, with a show-stopping number called Jeanette’s Showbiz Number. Freeman: “People in the street used to say hello because they thought I was a neighbor, but now I have a name to go with my face.”
“I came full circle. There I was in Naked City over 50 years ago, and now I’m with naked men in The Full Monty; it’s been one hell of a joy-ride through an industry that can easily bump you off.”
In the summer of 2001, weakened by illness, Freeman was forced to take a break from The Full Monty. Five days later, she was taken by lung cancer. The next day it was announced that she had been nominated for a Tony Award. She was 82-years-old and had been working since she was two. Her ashes are interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
She had a longtime partner, Helen Ramsey, whom the obituaries seemed to have neglected to mention. The NY Times was coy, saying she “never married”, as cute a euphemism as “confirmed bachelor”.
The Full Monty’s director Jack O’Brien wrote:
“She was the perfect definition of the consummate pro; she played the last year of her life to full houses and standing ovations, and it seems like an appropriate curtain to a wonderful career”.