Acting nonstop in film, TV, and theater since the early 1950s, Ruta Lee tackles all projects – on screen and off – with zeal.
In 1964, she even called the office of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to demand the release of her Lithuanian grandmother, held since World War II in a Siberian internment camp.
A decade earlier, Lee approached her first film role as one of the brides in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” with equal tenacity.
“During the dance audition, the producers and director asked me to show them something folksy,” recalled Lee from Los Angeles. “Because of my Lithuanian descent, I danced up a storm with a polka and got the role.”
She was paired with gifted dance partner Matt Mattox in the MGM musical.
“One time while rehearsing, he lifted me high off a bench and I sprained my ankle when I landed. So I learned most of the choreography from a sitting position, but still managed to do most of the dancing in the big barn raising number.”
A year earlier, in 1953, Lee also wildly boogied her way into one of her first TV roles in “The Adventures of Superman,” and learned a valuable lesson in on-set protocol.
“It was a short dance scene in a café and I decided to rehearse during lunch hour,” she explained. “But when I plugged in the record player, someone grabbed me and said ‘you can’t do that, you don’t belong to the electrician’s union!’”
Lee went on to make numerous appearances on TV shows (see www.rutalee.com), with westerns being a favorite. And while many cowboys chased her, only one came close to catching her off screen.
“Most of the dating I did was for publicity purposes and never had any real romances with actors except Eric Fleming from ‘Rawhide.’ What a darling man. But the most he got was a goodnight kiss!”
Her serious relationships were always with businessmen, she says, not show business men. In the midst of her rising career 40 years ago, Lee met Texas restaurant executive Webster B. Lowe, Jr., and the couple soon married.
Lee delivered one of the great surprise movie endings in the final scene of “Witness for the Prosecution,” Billy Wilder’s 1957 British courtroom drama starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton.
“We had to sign secrecy agreements not to give away the surprise ending, which involved me,” she recalled. “I also appear in the balcony with Elsa Lanchester watching the trial. She was Laughton’s real-life wife and helped me with my Middle English dialect. Elsa and Charles had a dressing room on the set with a little kitchen and would invite me for lunch. I become a favorite of his and he would pout if I didn’t visit and play Perquackey or Jotto with him.”
Lee has also been a tireless voice to help others, raising millions of dollars for the Thalians to support people with mental health problems, including returning veterans (see www.thalians.org).
And then there was her effort to rescue her grandmother from Siberia.
“When I called Khrushchev’s office, I spoke with his translator,” she recalled. “Within 48 hours we were flying over to bring her back to America. So I’ve had an interesting life and I’m always involved with something. It’s been a long, wonderful and fruitful career.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. Follow @TinseltownTalks