Interview: Ruta Lee Discusses Her Autobiography, Frank Sinatra and Her Legendary Career
Even in the earliest years of her career, Ruta Lee emerged as a formidable force in the entertainment industry. All one has to do is watch the actress’ cool, self-assured presence in films like Marjorie Morningstar to her star-making work in series like Perry Mason and Maverick… heck, if the show aired during the Golden Age of Television, chances are Ruta Lee guest-starred at some point.
Over her seventy year career, Lee continues to grow not only as a performer, but she’s seemingly unafraid to reinvent herself. Lee is also a philanthropist, heading Hollywood non-profit, The Thalians, in their vital work with mental health and veterans issues.
This week, the crew at Ticklish Business were lucky enough to sit down with Ruta Lee who is currently hard at work promoting her new memoir: Consider Your Ass Kissed, where she reflects on her life, her rich and varied career, as well as the many legendary performers she’s been lucky enough to work with.
How are you?
I am exceedingly well and so happy… we’re finally coming up for air a little bit with this whole COVID crap… I’m, of course, a very happy camper. Because for the first time in my life, I’ve added another dimension to my life and personality. Not only am I an entertainer… actress, singer, dancer, philanthropist, you know, but I’m now an author. And… let me tell you, I admire anybody who can sit their fanny down and write a book because… you have to have the patience of Job to get through the process. But now that I’ve done it, I’m very, very happy… I’m already thinking in terms of another book because there’s so much I left out of this (one).
Your new book, Consider Your Ass Kissed really is great and that is truly a great title…
You know, Kristen, and Samantha and Kimberly, thank you so much for saying that. I know that some people might get just a little bit shocked, you know, Victorian ears sometimes…. I mean it from the bottom of my heart, I mean it with full gratitude (to the) people who have cared to… turn the set on because I’m on, or come to the theater to see me, or support my charity, buy my book… whatever the case may be… my greatest compliment is to say, “Consider Your Ass Kissed”. And if anybody’s gonna upset about that, just remember that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on his ass, well I can kiss that ass.
Well, what why did you think now was a good time to write your memoirs and tell all these amazing stories?
Well, I’ve only been talking about it for about 10 years. I’ve heard from people all my life that I have… such interesting… stories to tell about people… We all love to gossip a tiny bit, you know….. But I just never had the… perseverance to sit down and actually do it. A good PR person, friend of mine in Dallas, Texas, and Fort Worth, where I played for 40 years…. (said), “Let’s sit down. I’m going to come out to LA with my tape recorder. And we’re going to tape record everything that you have to say”. Well… over the weekend, you know, I had all kinds of stories and crap. But let’s face it, he also recorded and transcribed every phone call that came, every bark that the dogs bade, every “Excuse me, I have to go pee”… everything got recorded. So all that had to be edited out. So you can imagine what the book would have been if all that had been put in. But it’s really a strange feeling. Ladies, just sit and go back through your life. And there are so many things. And of course, when when you’re talking about one It reminds you of another which reminds you of another and then in reading the book.
The last time I looked at it in editing, I just said oh my god, I didn’t talk about this …. I didn’t talk about Russia over there… I didn’t talk about the Canadian thing. All these things… left to talk about. But the most important thing that I have really to do more on…. there’s one chapter that’s dedicated to my beautiful little grandmother that spent a lot of time in Siberia.
She had been deported with her husband to Siberia, his legs were frozen on the cattle car… on six week trek. When they took his boots off at a station the flesh came off with it, you know, gangrene had set in. There’s so much to that story of the terrorism, the panic. And I’m not talking about the great intelligentsia… of Lithuania where they were. These are little tiny farm folk. You know if they had a pig and a cow, they were wealthy. That’s (who) got deported to Siberia.
I have so much to say on that subject. And, of course, the crazy adventure of my calling Khrushchev…. that I had to do something quite dramatic after 12 years of trying to do the legal thing of trying to get my grandmother out of Soviet Union. It gets a big adventurous story, you know, and, and I got her out.
Ladies, when she got here, finally, after this adventure… they didn’t have jetways then, you had to step down the stairs on the tarmac to walk into to the building… that little 95 year old lady dropped to her knees… and kissed the ground… and said, “Hello, America”.
I think about how so many of our young generation… the last two generations really… take for granted, the liberties that we have in the United States… everything that is not available in all other countries of the world. And I just feel like it is incumbent upon me to pass what little information I have (which) might hit someone between the ears and say, “Oh, God, There’s, Some Truth Here”. So well, I don’t mean to teach, I kind of feel that… some of my experiences might hit someone’s heart… I feel like I have to do that. So that’s gonna be the next book, another 10 years.
Amazing. That was one of my favorite chapters to read is about you and your grandmother, I love hearing her appearance on Johnny Carson with you and the whole journey of you getting her to America. And honestly, you going on and after just hearing that she had passed was so brave of you.
That, you know, that was a very interesting thing…. God has taught me down the long line that death is something to be expected if you’re alive. So maybe you don’t want it in your youth, but as you get older, it will happen. And I don’t go into a spate of tears every time somebody close to me goes to meet their maker. I just sort of smile at the fact that I had time with that person, I had the experiences with that person. And I’m grateful…. gratitude is a very important thing in my life. And I think that’s why the title of the book (is) Consider Your Ass Kissed, because it’s the most humorous and sweetest and yet the most sincere way of saying thank you,
It seems serendipitous that you were set to appear on Johnny Carson that night…
Isn’t that amazing? Well, everything in my life seems serendipitous. Now maybe it comes backed with a lot of prayer. You know, serendipity might have something to do with getting on your knees and saying please, and thank you. But so many happy things came my way because of the pure luck. I mean, think about the… my so called unusual screen-test by a wonderful producer to get my movie Witness for the Prosecution, and then think about how Frank Sinatra ran it at home and said, “Hey, why don’t we use her?”. That’s serendipitous too, you know, how I became his leading lady. So my whole life is just those wonderful things that have happened out of the clear blue.
Yeah, there were so many amazing stories… I feel like you’ve worked with all of my favorite people. The Rat Pack stories are particularly my favorite.
Yeah. The boys, you know… they were adult children… on the set, most of the time. Not I’m not saying that the guys didn’t know how to work hard. They did. They certainly did. But they knew how to have fun too. And every moment that was loose, was spent with jokes and fun and pranks. And wow, I had such a good time. And of course, I owe a great deal to Frank Sinatra. He colored my life in the most wonderful ways.
He seems to be there at every step of the way.
Yeah, a lot. And, you know, I he was quick to do good. He was very quick to anger when pushed. I really never saw him angry… (only) over the thing I write about… but (he would) get angry if he was lifting spaghetti to his mouth and somebody, a fan or a friend, came and put his arm down and said, “Frank, can I have a picture?” or something. That would irritate the hell out of him. But then it would irritate the hell out of anybody, you know, if somebody overstepped their bounds. That’s the only time I saw him really get pissed off about anything…. I couldn’t blame him for getting upset about those things. And then he would be rude, then after he was rude, he’d sort of feel bad…
The impression that I always got from all of the collective stories that I’ve heard is that if you were his friend, he was the nicest person in the world. But if you weren’t his friend, you were nothing to him.
You wouldn’t want to be his enemy, let’s just put it that way… I experienced it to some degree, which I write about in the book, where he got very angry with me for absolutely no reason, but (to him) I was responsible for it. Let’s put it that way. And I suffered! You know, I don’t like anybody being distressed with me in any way and I really do suffer terrible pangs of, “What did I do? How did I do it? How do I make it right?”. I guess simple apologies are always (best) whether it’s your fault or not. Apologize for it.
Your feature film debut as just a young girl was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. What was that like to come on to a major musical with Howard Keel, and Jane Powell directing with Stanley Donen directing all these big stars?What what was that like to be thrust into the studio system with that feature?
Well, you know, I was really too young and too stupid to realize how very blessed I was. It was my first movie. I had done some television, not much. But it was my first movie. And these were the days when I was still dancing a lot. In fact, I was up at a dance symposium in Idlewild…. USC has a great arts foundation… the Idlewild School of Music and Fine Arts…. (it’s) a great summer place to go to, to dance and take… classes, but in 7000 feet of altitude, it’s kind of tough…. My high school dance teacher invited me to come up with her and take some classes. And it was one of the best experiences I ever had. While I was there I got a call from my agent to get my fanny off the hill and come down to Hollywood because he had an audition for me for a picture that at the time was called Sobbin’, which is a takeoff of the Sabine Women, you know, the Roman soldiers, grabbing all those cute girls that you see the paintings up anyway, and they’re all naked. I just love those.
Anyway, I came down. And my mother went with me. Of course, she went into the church across the street from Metro, where I went into the casting office. She lit candles and prayed. And I went in and did my dance audition. And, hey, I got the job.
And I don’t quite know how or why (I got the job) because every time I would be…in the warm up class for rehearsals…and then you know, we had… (at least) six weeks of rehearsals on the dance numbers for Seven Brides…. I would look around the room and say oh my god. These are some of the best dancers in America. You know, we had the premiere dancer from the ballet, Jacques d’Amboise. Matt Mattox, the one that I was paired with… I had just seen him… six months earlier (in) Carnival in Flanders…. And I wondered, how did I get so blessed? What am I doing here, I can’t keep up with these people. They’re really brilliant dancers… I’m just a beginner. So I just thank God every day (that) I was so lucky. And frankly, I didn’t really recognize how lucky I was. But you know, when you’re young, you jump in and you do things and it’s like jumping in the water to swim, you just do it. You know, I learned a lot.. on Seven Brides.
I don’t care what you’re into, you don’t have to be the best in your field to be doing it. You just have to believe that you can sell that you are. Your smile and your attitude paints a much bigger picture than delicate little footsteps. I… learned a lot and that carried me through all of life. You don’t have to be the best singers or… the best dancer. Oh, you could try to be. But you don’t have to be the absolute top notch best in the world in order to sell a number or sell a song. If you do it with your whole heart and know that an audience will love you if you give them your heart. It works.
I was very curious if there was anyone on that set that you became particularly close with?
Mostly we all went to lunch together. The girls… clung together more than the boys I think. But I mean, we all became good friends. Julie Newmar is still a very good friend to this day. And last year… just before COVID I had been in New York, and Norma Doggett, the (girl in the) green dress…. I described everyone by what color they wore. She had been a stage dancer and she did a lot of Broadway shows… she was wonderful. I saw her in New York. We had lunch together and she had come in from Long Island, wherever the hell she lived. And it was such fun to relive a lot of that, you know, the girls were really great fun. The only one I never really kept up with was Nancy Kilgas. The cute little blonde girl in the pink dress. But, I kept up with a lot of them. And a lot of them, gosh, died on me on the young side. You know? I don’t know why, but hell, I believe in what the Bible promises me… 120 years and I want every single one of them being able to walk and talk at the same time and chew gum.
I know each of us have favorites from that film. In addition to you, of course, I’m a big Russ Tamblyn fan and I know Kristen is a big Tommy Rall fan.
Oh, Tommy just died, you know… just recently. His wife has now gone to live in… oh, I can’t remember if it’s one of the Carolinas, or if it’s somewhere kind of south. She’s invited me to come and visit and they’re working on the house. Her son is there with her. So that works pretty well. And so I sort of still stay in touch. And unfortunately, most everybody else is gone, you know. When I stop and think of our leading man (Howard Keel). What a lovely man he was. The last time I saw him… was when he was getting his star on the Walk of Fame in Palm Springs. And I went to say funny, slightly rude little things about him. Of course, beautiful Jane Powell is still alive. She’s off in New York. And she’s very special. And there’s a girl that had it all and was a doll to go with it.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you about your work with The Thalians…
They (The Thalians) were a group of young people in Hollywood who got tired of being called hard drinking, pot smoking, sex minded asses that had nothing to give or contribute. They said, you know, we all get together and sing and dance and you know, sing around the piano and have a few drinks and laugh. Why don’t we put something together and sell tickets and raise money for a charity. I write about this in the book, they sent out Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren…. you know what bra sizes they have…. And they were set out to find a good charity. They came back the next meeting and said, “Well, all the good diseases have been taken!”.
So they found that there was a doctor… dealing with emotionally disturbed children. He described an emotionally disturbed child as an apple that was rotting in a barrel. It can affect the entire barrel if you don’t take it out and cut out what’s bad…. So that’s what The Thalians did.
And then 18 years later, The Thalians built the first building that went in at the Cedars Sinai complex in Los Angeles. I’m so proud of the fact that we were able to do that, this group of young actors who and the people who believed in the cause of mental health and helped us along the way. Now our clinic, which was the Thalians Community Mental Health Center, (deals) with everything pediatric to geriatric and wow, you know, in treatment and in research.
We’ve thriving for about 60 years, doing huge, fabulous shows. We honored everybody from Busby Berkeley through Frank Sinatra through Whoopi Goldberg through Sally Field… amazing people who not only were sparkling on stage and screen, but were sparkling in their philanthropic deeds as well. And we raised millions and millions and millions of dollars.
Then we decided to switch our focus and concentrate on a very important need. And that is the need of the returning veterans, those beautiful young men and women who put their lives on the line to to keep America safe. And then they come home, and they fall through the cracks. And they deserve the best America has to offer… So we teamed up with UCLA and Operation Mend. Operation Mend heals the broken bodies (and) the shattered limbs of our wonderful, returning veterans and we Thalians tried to heal the shattered mind and spirits (of) our returning veterans.
(If) your listeners are of a mind to or have a heart to and let’s face it, Americans are the most generous people on the face of this earth, please go to Thalians.org. And you can read all about us and what we do. And if you contribute 50 cents, $5, $500,000 it will be put to very, very good use helping those who are there to help us. I thank you in advance and consider your ass kissed.
I couldn’t go without talking to you about Debbie Reynolds because she’s one of my absolute favorites… It’s amazing the work that you did together.
Well, we I always said that we were the ‘Mother Superiors’ of The Thalians. Our first president was Hugh O’Brian. Then Margaret came in… only one of my best friends, Margaret Whiting the singer, was the second president. And then Debbie became president. And then she brought in Donald O’Connor as President. And then I became president. Every one of these people served like one or two years, I became president for about 14 years. And then she said, “Ruta, I’m off Broadway now. I’ll be back, I’ll take the presidency, you go up to Chairman of the Board”… where I stayed for the next 25 or whatever years…. Then, you know, she had to go back out on the road, making up for the deficits that every one of her frickin’ husbands cost her. And so I was either President or Chairman of the Board forever, it seems like. Now I’m Chairman Emeritus. But I’m still very much involved. But of course, we’re not doing our big shows now. Because we can’t thanks to COVID. But, we’ll be back… we have to raise funds. So I’m very grateful to anybody that supports us, in spite of the fact that we’re not giving them a big dinner show.
When you stop and think about it… Debbie Reynolds is one of the founding members. I came in like five years or so after it was started, focusing on mental health through the whole period. In all the years that we were together… her own daughter died with mental health problems. And Debbie was one of the best human beings God put on this earth in every way. She was truly a fine and generous human being who would help anybody that needed help. And I was always very proud of the fact… she stressed that we Thalians shine a Hollywood spotlight a “Klieg” light on that dark abyss, that pit called mental illness….Mental illness was tucked in a closet… and not talked about. And now we have tried all these 50 years to bring it out into the open. So that and thank God, it is more open. Now it is more discussed. And I feel that we Thalians have a lot to do with it, because we made it. We filled lives that were bleak with with (the) pain of mental illness with the light of healing and a little humor… a little music and a little everything…. I’m so grateful to the people that supported us all through the years.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up your amazing TV work, because you’ve worked with pretty much every amazing talent in classic television, whether that’s James Garner, who I love, or The Lucy Show. What is the television appearance that just sticks with you?
Oh, well, Lord, you just mentioned two of my favorites. Anytime I could work with Jimmy Garner, it was wonderful. And had he not been married, I would have jumped on his bones, but being a good Catholic girl I just wouldn’t do that.
Of course when you talk about Lucille Ball, now those were always great experiences. And the loveliest experience about working with Lucy is that she became a very good friend. And I asked her to be one of our honorees at The Thalians and she agreed. Whenever I asked her to do something, she would do it you know, which is amazing because like I said, time was precious to her. You know time away from being “Lucille Ball” was very precious to her… She was a great dame. And of course, I’m very friendly with her daughter, “Little Lu”, as I call her who lives…not far from my Palm Springs house. So we get to see each other every once in a while… Lucy, I think, is in everybody’s life. I know that most foreigners who come to the United States will turn on The Lucy Show to learn English… because Lucy was so expressive in what she said and did that I think foreigners can understand that… you know, that was Lucy and and I just love the idea that she has had how many generations of viewers now?
And they’re going to do they’re going to do a TV limited mini series about about her life on the show, which I’m not 100% on board about but it’ll be a new generation.
Yeah, exactly. Well, she had a stunning life and and she was generous with her time so I’m very very grateful. I met her long before I ever worked for her at a racetrack, believe it or not… and it was a stunning experience for me to be with Lucy and Desi. And then later I worked on her shows. And boy oh boy did I love that. And then I also had the joy of being the guest star at one of the big events that take place in Jamestown, New York, where people come from all over the world to celebrate Lucy’s birthday. And, and oh, you know, they take over the whole town. And they do parades and theaters are closed… to run Lucy segments of movies and oh… it was a great experience for me. And I was stunned to see how many people come into Jamestown New York and and go to her grave side which is alongside of her mom’s and and visit I think what a lovely way to spend a birthday for Lucy…. it’s worth it.
You write so eloquently about coming into to Hollywood at a young age. And I love your descriptions of seeing movies and working at Graumans. What movies were you seeing at that time? Who were those performers who made you want to be a performer? Who was inspiring you?
Well, clearly when I got the job at Grauman’s Chinese, which was a big thrill, (it was) a beautiful, beautiful theater, and you know, historic My God. Then, of course… they were running… 20th Century Fox Films, so the leading ladies were Betty Grable, who became friend, June Haver, who later became a very good friend, Mitzi Gaynor, Ethel Merman, you know… these were the people that I was seeing on the screen while I was an usherette… just aching to do what they did and be like them.
Mitzi Gaynor is a very good friend, God love her, you know, the rest of the ladies are gone. But Mitzi is still very much alive… and still the head of the professional dancer society which does lovely events every year. But we’ve all come to a standstill because of this damn COVID and (I’m) oh, anxious to get it over.
What are you most looking forward to?
Well, I haven’t stopped seeing my friends. You… create a pod of healthy friends that are either inoculated or you know… they’re safe. And so I have a group in Palm Springs where I have a house and I have a group here in LA. So I have not stopped going…. in Palm Springs we were very blessed that a lot of our restaurants until the silly governor put a halt to it, were open right on the street….
We’re blessed in California with a climate that you can do this year round, which is wonderful. And so I never really, really stopped but what I’m missing most is going to the theater and seeing shows. I know that they’re starting to open the movies, but it’s not going to be the same when you’re not packed together. The laughter that is elicited by one big laugh leader in a group you know, a tightly packed theater audience is so important…. I miss that I miss hearing it as a performer and I miss giving it as an audience.
I know we’re definitely feeling that with the TCM Film Festival not happening again this year. I know Sam and Kim and I, we go every year and that’s the big thing that we we’ve missed during all of this is getting to enjoy classic films in a theater in nerd out over over these things.
I’d join you too. I’ve always been invited to their things, in fact I’ve done one of their cruises. In fact, the only reason I have television, I think, is so I can get TCM.
Ruta and I talked very briefly one year I forget what the opening night film was. And I was a great talk. But I think the only thing I remember is that you you commented on how pale my arms were and how it was great that I did not have a tan. And I was like, Okay, I can work with that.
Thank you for reminding me because I was about to say, I always enjoyed the red carpet so much because I got to visit with beautiful and now very young people doing the interviews.
Well, I adore the sun. And I must say I am paying the price for it now. I am growing things like barnacles all over… thanks to the sun, you know. I spent my life in the sun… never my face, because I always thought I didn’t photograph as well dark as I did light… I wore big hats. In fact… my book readers will enjoy the story about Eva Gabor, and getting tan naked. Is that a teaser? Or is that a teaser?
As the TCM Classic Film Festival goes, it’s kind of amazing because you have to make such difficult decisions as far as which movies you can see… I remember crying in Mel’s restaurant because I had to miss your introduction of Witness for the Prosecution. And it’s so amazing that I’m able to talk to you now. And I have to ask you about Witness for the Prosecution because Tyrone Power is my all time favorite actor.
….Oh, he was a joy to work with. In fact, I write a little bit about this in the book. He discovered after I spent a little time with him and he was so pleasant and sweet and nice to be with…. He found out, he being Tyrone, that I had never seen one of his first great films that made him a big star, which was Blood and Sand with Rita Hayworth. And so he arranged a screening for me at Rogers and Cowan in the private screening room. And I sat there with him as my date! I watched him on the screen with my heart pounding going pitter patter pitter patter.
… Rita Hayworth, who also became a Thalians honoree, was once the owner of the house that I (own in) Laurel Canyon in Hollywood. She lived here with Orson Welles. And I go up and down the halls rubbing my ass on the walls and glamour will come off on it…
I was revisiting some Stump the Stars yesterday and your appearance on Fractured Flickers. I was wondering if you could shine a light at all on Hans Conried, he’s such a fascinating performer. And there’s so little written about him...
What a fabulous guy to work with. Because he was filled with humor and loved to laugh his way through whatever we were doing as well. And Stump the Stars was blessed in that everybody that we ever worked with was just wild and wonderful, you know…such fun… I think that Lucy fell in love with Stump the Stars… she always loved charades. And we used to go over to her house to play… by Lucy I mean THE Lucy…. But then I write about all this in the book, which I hope everybody will run out by at least 400 copies of so that you make me look good to the printer.
Where is your book available?
…On Amazon dot com of course… It’s also available in all the Barnes and Noble stores. And I like for everybody to go to their local bookstore… Those of us in Hollywood (who are) a little bit… showbiz trash, certainly know Larry Edmunds because they have all the memorabilia and all the movie star books. And I will be doing a signing hopefully there… if not physically than virtually somehow. But Larry Edmunds bookstore in Hollywood is very special.
Where are you on social media in case fans want to get in touch with you learn more about you?
Just go to Ruta Lee dot com, that’s my website. And then when it comes to everything else, I don’t know my address because I don’t write myself. I just answer mail as best I can and and love every single second of it. And the problem is that I lose a week… answering people, it takes so long because I try to get to everybody. And thank God I have Judy who says you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do that though. You answer that one this one needs. So, Judy diamond is my assistant and she helps me out with everything. Thank you, God.
Be sure to check out the full audio of our interview with Ruta Lee at the top of this interview. There’s so much to this bright, intelligent and delightful woman and it is such a thrill to know she’s been able to sit down, put some pen to paper and tell her story. She’s been a part of some truly legendary works and is certainly one of our surviving treasures of the entertainment industry. If you’re a fan of entertainment autobiographies, make sure you add this one to your lists. It is available wherever you purchase your books, from Amazon to Barnes and Noble and even Larry Edmunds!
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