From the Archives: Ralph Bellamy Dies; Veteran Actor Won Fame for F.D.R. Role
Actor Ralph Bellamy, once a portrayer of amiable clods who broke from that stereotype to triumph as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the play “Sunrise at Campobello,” died Friday after a film, stage, radio and television career that lasted more than 60 years. He was 87.
Bellamy died at 2:18 a.m. at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center, said A. C. Lyles, veteran film producer and a friend of Bellamy’s for 53 years. Lyles said Bellamy had been hospitalized earlier this month with a longstanding lung disease.
Bellamy learned to act in Chautauqua and stock troupes during the 1920s, then went to Hollywood to appear in nearly 100 films while continuing to perform on the Broadway stage and on television. He gained his initial reputation by always seeming to lose the girl to the handsomer and wittier leading man.
Perhaps the role that established this image was that of the fatuous Oklahoma millionaire in the 1937 film, “The Awful Truth.” Cary Grant took Irene Dunne away from him. Bellamy at least got an Academy Award nomination.
The following year, he lost Carole Lombard to Fred MacMurray in “Fools for Scandal” and Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire in “Carefree.”
By 1942, after a dozen years in Hollywood, he happened to see a script in which one of the characters was described as “a charming, naive fellow from the Southwest—a typical Ralph Bellamy type.”
“Then and there,” wrote the actor in his 1979 book, “When the Smoke Hits the Fan,” “I decided to go to New York and find a play.”
He did, appearing in the World War II drama, “Tomorrow the World.” He scored another stage success in 1945 with “State of the Union” and then in 1949 with “Detective Story.”
But it was in Dore Schary’s “Sunrise at Campobello” in 1958 that he reached the height of his career. With cigarette holder at a jaunty angle, he won both the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Award for his performance as a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt battling polio.
It was the only one of his big stage roles that he was to re-create in films.
In a 1975 interview, Bellamy said it had not bothered him that other actors were chosen for the movie versions of “Tomorrow the World,” “State of the Union” and “Detective Story.”
In fact, he said, he was not even certain he should have done “Campobello” on the screen because “acting for the camera is a far different thing than acting to the second balcony.”
At that point, he had done 96 films and he said, “I think I’d burn 95 of them.” He remembered “The Awful Truth,” which director Leo McCarey seemed to improvise without a script, as a lot of fun to make, “but I haven’t yet made one I’d really care to be remembered by.”
Bellamy said he had never regarded himself as a leading man, “and therefore nobody else seemed to.”
Bellamy was born in Chicago, where his father was a successful advertising executive. As a boy, he did not care much for studying, but did become president of the high school drama club.
He said he could not recall when the acting urge struck him, but that it may have taken hold at age 15 when, while working as a bellboy at Balboa Bay during a summer trip to Southern California with his mother, he met silent screen actress Louise Lovely and told her he wanted to be an actor.
She got him a job as an extra in “Wings of Morn,” which was being shot there. He was paid $5 for being drenched with a fire hose in a shipwreck scene.
Back in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, he was expelled from high school in his senior year for smoking under the stage. He worked as a soda jerk, as a store clerk and as a fruit picker. But he had the phone number of a man who produced plays for the summer Chautauqua circuit. So he called and said, “This is Ralph Bellamy. I wonder if you have anything for me this season.”
He was hired to play the part of the leading man’s father in “The Shepherd of the Hills.” He was not quite 18 years old. The leading man was 28.
His friend Melvyn Douglas, also a struggling young actor, had gotten a job as the leading man in a Madison, Wis., stock company and managed to get Bellamy on as business and stage manager at $40 a week.
From there, Bellamy acted for various stock companies throughout the Midwest. He went on a Chautauqua tour from town to town along the Mississippi River.
In 1924, Bellamy left Terre Haute, Ind., where he was leading man in a stock company, and went to New York. He thought he was ready for Broadway. Apparently he wasn’t. Things got so bad he was down to living on peanuts and water. He recalled in his book that a policeman once saw him stealing a bottle of milk from a doorstep, but turned away out of apparent pity.
It was back to stock—in places like Waterloo, Iowa. He formed his own stock company in Des Moines—with his father putting up the money—and after two seasons moved it to Nashville where it played two more.
Returning to New York, he spent some time with a stock company on Long Island at $50 a week while he and Melvyn Douglas haunted the offices of Broadway agents. Finally, Bellamy won a part in “Town Boy” on Broadway. It closed after two performances, but it led to a good job as leading man with a stock company in Rochester, where he played opposite Helen Hayes.
Bellamy returned to New York City in the summer of 1930, practically broke. He managed to get a part in the play “Roadside.” It ran only 11 performances, but it got him offers from several film studios.
He signed with United Artists, but when he arrived in Hollywood, UA chief Joseph Schenck looked him over and did not seem very enthusiastic. “I got the impression . . . that he felt he’d made a mistake,” Bellamy wrote.
Schenck never used Bellamy in a picture, but lent him out to other studios—first to MGM for “The Secret Six” a 1931 production with Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Johnny Mack Brown and Lewis Stone. Bellamy played a baby-faced killer.
After Bellamy got out of his contract with Schenck, he made other films—"The Magnificent Lie” with Ruth Chatterton, “Surrender,” “Second-Hand Wife” and “Air Mail” with Pat O’Brien.
“It looked,” Bellamy decided, “as if Hollywood was going to provide a decent living.”
He did well enough during the early 1930s that he and actor Charles Farrell bought 53 acres of Palm Springs land for $3,500 and built their own tennis courts because the owner of the El Mirador had asked them to stop using the hotel’s courts when his guests wanted to play. The result was the Palm Springs Racquet Club, which Bellamy finally turned over entirely to Farrell.
In 1933, he became a founding director of the Screen Actors Guild and throughout his career was active in organizations designed to help actors.
“Forbidden,” with Barbara Stanwyck and Adolph Menjou was regarded by Bellamy as his first really good movie part. “One of my biggest professional mistakes,” he conceded in his book, “was not being more selective after that.”
In “His Girl Friday,” the 1940 remake of the old newspaper play “The Front Page” with Rosalind Russell playing Hildy Johnson (which had been a male role in the stage version), Bellamy once again lost the girl.
During that first dozen years in Hollywood, he also appeared in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” in a short series of Ellery Queen detective films and in such war-and-adventure movies as “Smashing the Spy Ring” (1941), “Dive Bomber” (1942) and “Men of Texas” (1943).
Then he saw the notation about the “typical Ralph Bellamy” part and departed for New York City to return to the stage.
He played a college professor in “Tomorrow the World.” It ran 62 weeks. He also co-produced and directed a melodrama called “Pretty Little Parlor.” He began doing a great deal of radio work and more stage plays, including “State of the Union” in 1945.
Although he was doing fairly well, making a few more pictures along the way, Bellamy was at a low financial ebb in 1949 after a divorce from his third wife, organist Ethel Smith, and continuing medical bills for his daughter by his second wife, actress Catherine Willard.
It was then that he was offered the part of Detective McLeod in “Detective Story.” He spent weeks visiting New York City police stations and developed a fondness for policemen. The play was a hit and led to a television series for Bellamy: “Man Against Crime.” He won an Academy of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences Award for his performance on that show.
He did the series live for five years, then went on tour in the play “Oh, Men! Oh, Women!”
“Sunrise at Campobello,” in which he portrayed F.D.R. in pre-presidential days, opened Jan. 30, 1958, and was, he agreed, “the highlight of my professional career.”
He appeared in several other television series: “The Eleventh Hour” (1963-64), “The Survivors” (1969), “The Most Deadly Game” (1970) and “Hunter” (1976).
In 1968, he made a radical character shift, playing a diabolist in “Rosemary’s Baby,” a melodrama in which the devil impregnates an actor’s wife. More recently he was the benevolent shipping magnate resisting takeover attempts in the 1990 romantic comedy “Pretty Woman” and, naturally, President Roosevelt in the 1988 TV miniseries “War and Remembrance.” He also appeared in the movie “Trading Places” in 1983.
After three unsuccessful marriages (beginning with Alice Delbridge, from whom he was divorced in 1931), he married his last wife, Alice Murphy, in 1949.
In addition to the daughter, Lynn, Bellamy and his second wife also had a son, Willard.
Services for Bellamy are scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Chapel of the Hills, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.
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