June 17, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The answer to the question posed by the title of this column can easily be answered by anyone who fell for the hilarious film comedies of the late 1970s and early 80s (the era from which Animal House sprang). Late in life, Ralph Bellamy turned in arguably his most memorable performance in the 1983 Eddie Murphy-Dan Ackroyd smash hit Trading Places, which had him ideally cast as one of the Duke brothers, playing opposite an actor in every way his equal in terms of experience on stage and screen, the great Don Ameche. At the film’s finish, Bellamy might have been responsible for one of the only heart attacks ever scripted that made audiences scream with laughter. Especially when the President of the Stock Exchange informs Ameche, “Your brother is not well. We better call an ambulance,” and his immediate reply is “Fuck him!” That line was totally unexpected from the lips of the urbane seventy-five year old Ameche back in 1983.
At the height of the American cinema in the 1930s and 40s, when Hollywood movie studios were churning out hundreds of films with “more stars than there are in heaven” (as MGM once boasted), everyone skewed to a type. When you wanted a tough guy leading man who was also handsome, you got Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. When you wanted laconic and laid-back, you got Gary Cooper or James Stewart. And when you wanted the secondary guy — the one who loses the girl — you got Ralph Bellamy. Really, there was no other choice. No one better fit the bill as the kind and concerned fellow who never truly deserved to be dumped by an Irene Dunne or a Rosalind Russell for Cary Grant (yes, it happened to Bellamy twice), but come on — it was Cary Grant! Who else was the audience supposed to root for to get the girl? Years of such treatment on screen eventually took its toll on Bellamy, which sent him back to his true love, the stage, which is how Bellamy was first discovered.
Most actors with rich voices (his was a beaut) were sent out west as soon as talking pictures came into vogue in 1927. Bellamy arrived in 1931, and then over the next five years of steady employment, his films would total thirty-seven. Tall, with a craggy but pleasant face, he entered into the world of the theatre immediately upon graduating from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois in 1922. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Bellamy’s apprenticeships included everything having to do with the stage: from the loading and unloading of props and scenery, to designing sets, then managing, producing and directing. And of course: acting.
“During nine years in repertory and touring companies, the Times wrote, “he played more than 400 roles, often two or three in the same play, including four years (1926 to 1930) as head of his own repertory troupe, the Ralph Bellamy Players, in Des Moines, Nashville and Evanston, Ill. The critic Walter Kerr — who as a student at Northwestern University had been a regular at the Evanston theater — praised Mr. Bellamy in 1979 as ‘the only performer who ever surprised us by altering character radically from play to play.’”
Imagine the work available back in the late 1920s that allowed someone like Bellamy to perform in nearly every medium: the Chautauqua circuit, tent shows, stock and repertory. For anyone with the talent, the natural progression for them to move on to Broadway, radio, movies and television, is exactly how it worked out for Bellamy. He was highly successful and did great work across the boards. He was the star of the very first half-hour dramatic series in the early days of television, Man Against Crime. As private detective Mike Barnett, Bellamy appeared in 122 episodes over five years. Shortly after that, he achieved his greatest stage role, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Dore Shary’s Sunrise at Campobello. He won the 1958 Tony for Best Actor in a production that featured the Broadway debuts of James Earl Jones and Richard Thomas (who was only eight years old). Bellamy’s fierce competition for the award were Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Perkins and Peter Ustinov. Nice company.
It’s a shame the film version of Sunrise at Campobello is mostly a static recreation shot on stage-bound sets with tacky fake vistas subbing for scenic views. I prefer Bellamy in some of the terrific roles he played on film in the 1960s, like his Texas millionaire in Richard Brooks’s classic western The Professionals and as the kindly, but sinister Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. His final role was in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman, in which Richard Gere’s takeover king attempted to wrest control of the company Bellamy’s character had built from the ground up. It was old school versus new school, and Bellamy is just great holding his own in his scenes opposite Gere, shot when the actor was eighty-six years old.
He died one year later, the result of a lung ailment, but not after having received an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seven years earlier. It was well deserved, not only for the body of his work as an actor, but for his slavish devotion to the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles (where he was one of its founders and a prominent board member) as well as to Actors Equity in New York, where he was President through four consecutive elections over twelve years (still a record). At Equity he helped create the landmark contract that established the first actors’ pension fund; presided through the hideous blacklisting of the McCarthy era, fighting consistently against the often trumped up charges of Communist affiliations towards many in its membership. He also took on the merger of Actors’ Equity and Chorus Equity and the unionizing of Off-Broadway itself. Busy and historic times.
The honorary Oscar bestowed upon Bellamy was for “his unique artistry and distinguished service to the profession of acting.” It was the least Bellamy deserved, and it came forty years after his one and only nomination back in 1937 as Best Supporting Actor for The Awful Truth. The award was presented by Karl Malden, himself an Oscar winner, who mentioned that he (like Bellamy) had his own personal experiences on film of “not getting the girl.” At the ceremony, Bellamy was given a minute to make a speech that encompassed over sixty years in the profession. At eighty-three, he said: “I expect to be around for quite a while longer, and I look forward to working with those of you with whom I haven’t worked.”
Inexplicably, his next film was Disorderlies, starring the Fat Boys. But the man liked to work — and work is work, as the saying goes.
Ralph Bellamy was born in Chicago, Illinois 113 years ago today. But thanks to the preservation of his more than a hundred roles in film and television, you can always watch this wonderful actor work his special brand of magic. Stream The Awful Truth, The Professionals, Rosemary’s Baby or Trading Places and see how a pro does it — effortlessly.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book