She performed in New York's Yiddish theater and taught drama for 30 years around Los Angeles. But nothing in her life prepared Ellen Albertini Dow for her scene-stealing role as a hip-hop granny in "The Wedding Singer."
In the film, Dow plays Rosie, a free-spirited old lady who grabs the mike at her 50th wedding anniversary reception and covers the 1979 rap classic "Rapper's Delight" as she sweetly yet confidently raps: "I said a hip-hop a-hippity to the hippity hip-hop. . . ."
"Never heard of [the song] in my life," Dow said this week by phone from her home in Woodland Hills. "I just sang it and put some movement to it."
The scene, a favorite with audiences from the time of the trailers, has helped the romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore become a surprise hit, with a $20-million-plus opening weekend last week.
Moments before her rap number, the curly-haired Dow, dressed in a cream-colored evening gown, croons a heart-tugging version of the 1959 Broadway tune "Til There Was You" to her husband.
It was her rendition of that song that won Dow the role, but it's her syncopated rap style that's gained her unexpected notoriety.
"She was so great, she brought tears to my eyes," said Frank Coraci, the film's director, remembering how well Dow sang "Til There Was You" in the audition.
"We had no idea that this woman, who's a little over 4 feet tall, would be such a good rapper."
Dow said she couldn't have dreamed up a happier ending.
"This is all God's doing," Dow said. "I was content just to have three or four lines in a sitcom. I didn't expect all of this."
A veteran actress, Dow has appeared in numerous television shows in recent years, including episodes of "ER," "Seinfeld" and "The Golden Girls." She was part of the singing nun chorus in the "Sister Act" films.
In "Wedding Singer," Rosie takes singing lessons from wedding singer Robbie Hart (Sandler) and pays him with homemade Italian meatballs and marital advice.
Though the rap was originally part of the script, Coraci said he didn't know how funny it would be until Dow did it.
"We have even given her a nickname--Rapping Rosie From Reseda," Coraci said. "She just reminded us [the producers and writer] of our grandmother. A little eccentric, and very sweet."
Born in Mount Carmel, Pa., a small coal-mining town, Dow said she grew up sometime "shortly after World War I."
Every bit as feisty as the character she plays, Dow said to disclose her exact age would limit her in the minds of her audience.
"I don't want to be [considered] an actor good for her age," Dow said. "I want to be known as a good actor."
The daughter of a General Motors automobile dealership owner and Ellen Albertini, for whom she's named, Dow is the youngest of seven siblings and the only family member to pursue acting.
"I guess I'm the black sheep of the family," she said.
Her interest in the stage was piqued when Ray Bolger's repertory company and other theater and dance groups would perform in nearby Philadelphia, she said.
Upon graduating from Cornell University in 1938, where she studied drama, Dow acted and danced in New York for 12 years--including work in the Yiddish theater--before marrying Eugene, her husband of 46 years. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1952.
At the prodding of friends who recognized her natural sense of humor, Ellen returned to acting with an appearance in the revamped "Twilight Zone" television series soon after retiring in 1985 from 30 years of teaching drama at L.A. City and Pierce colleges.
Since then, the offers have steadily come her way. Next up, she plays the part of a drug-taking disco regular in "54," a movie starring Mike Myers about the famed Manhattan hot spot Studio 54.
Like Rosie, Dow said her marriage is central to her life and her husband her biggest inspiration. The couple have no children, just nieces and nephews, "too many to count," and they've all delighted in her newfound fame.
"One nephew took his date to the opening night to see me," Dow said.
And while she's seen "Wedding Singer" at an early screening, she's yet to see it with a general audience.
"I'm told that people are laughing and enjoying it," she said. "But I want to see the reaction of people myself."