Irene Eileen Noblett was born October 17, 1902 in El Paso, Texas.
She moved with her parents to San Francisco when she was a child.
At the age of 11, Irene won $3 for singing “Pretty Baby” in an amateur contest at the Valencia Theater in San Francisco.
Irene went on to perform in vaudeville where she met writer-comedian Tim Ryan.
The couple married in 1922 and began performing as “Tim and Irene, a double act known then as a “Dumb Dora” routine epitomized by George Burns and Gracie Allen.
The duo went on to have their own series of short subjects in the 1930’s for Educational Pictures, and later worked in feature films for Monogram Pictures.
In 1936, they substituted for Jack Benny in “The Jello Summer Show” on NBC’s Red network.
Then in 1942 the couple divorced. Irene Ryan then landed a part in a Bob Hope show. She went on to make regular appearances on the Bob Hope radio show. She also played Edgar Kennedy’s wife in two of Bob Hope’s short films in 1943.
Also in 1943, Irene appeared in the country music film “O, My Darling Clementine” starring Roy Acuff.
In 1946, Irene married Harold Knox, keeping her first marriage last name of Ryan as her stage name.
She continued working in motion pictures into the 1950’s, generally playing fussy or nervous women roles.
In January 1955, Irene made her first television sitcom appearance on an episode of CBS’s The Danny Thomas Show.
She also appeared with Walter Brennan in an episode of his ABC sitcom, The Real McCoys.
In the 1960-1961 CBS sitcom, Bringing Up Buddy, starring Frank Aletter, Irene was cast in three episodes as Cynthia Boyle.
Irene and Harold divorced in 1961.
The Beverly Hillbillies
Then in 1962, 60 year old Irene Ryan was cast as Daisy “Granny” Bodine nee Moses, the matriarch of the Clampett clan, in the CBS sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies.
According to Filmways publicist Ted Switzer, series creator and producer Paul Henning had decided to cast Bea Benaderet as Granny; however, when Irene read for the role, “with her hair tied back in a bun and feisty as all get out, she just blew everyone away.”
Executive producer Al Simon and Henning immediately said: “That’s Granny.”
Later when Bea Benaderet saw Irene’s tryout, she agreed. Bea Benaderet was then cast as her daughter-in-law Pearl Bodine nee Clampett.
Irene as Granny was nominated in 1963 and 1964 for Emmy Awards as an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
After her famous role came to an end when the show was canceled in 1971, Irene helped create and starred in the role of Berthe in the Bob Fosse directed 1972 Broadway musical “Pippin.” In the show, she surprised audiences with her talent as she sang the number “No Time at All” which mentions “a man who calls me Granny.”
Irene was nominated for the Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actress for her performance in Pippin.
She lost to Patricia Elliott (A Little Night Music), in a ceremony held about a month prior to Irene Ryan’s death.
On March 10, 1973, Irene Ryan suffered a stroke during a performance of Pippin.
She flew home to California on her doctor’s orders and was hospitalized.
Irene died at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California on April 26, 1973.
Her body was interred in a mausoleum crypt at the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica beside her sister, Anna Thompson.
After Irene’s death, the role of Berthe in Pippin was assumed by veteran actress Dorothy Stickney.
The Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship awards scholarships to outstanding actors who participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The scholarship provides “recognition, honor, and financial assistance to outstanding student performers wishing to pursue further education.” These scholarships have been awarded by the Irene Ryan Foundation since 1972.
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