Ruth Gordon Jones was born October 30, 1896 in Quincy, Massachusetts.
In 1915, Ruth Gordon appeared as an extra in silent films that were shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
That same year, she made her Broadway debut in a revival of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, in the role of Nibs (one of the Lost Boys), appearing onstage with Maude Adams and earning a favorable mention from the powerful critic Alexander Woollcott.
In 1918, Ruth played Lola Pratt in the Broadway adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen opposite actor Gregory Kelly, who later acted with her in North American tours of Frank Craven’s The First Year and Tarkington’s Clarence and Tweedles.
Gregory Kelly became her first husband in 1921, but died of heart disease in 1927, at the age of 36.
In 1929, Ruth was starring in the title role of “Serena Blandish” when she became pregnant by the show’s producer, Jed Harris. Their son, Jones Harris, was born in Paris that year. Gordon and Harris never married.
Ruth Gordon continued to act on the stage throughout the 1930s.
Then she was signed to an Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film contract for a brief period in the early 1930s but did not make a movie for the company until she acted opposite Greta Garbo in the 1941 film Two-Faced Woman.
Ruth went on to have better luck at other studios in Hollywood, appearing in supporting roles in a string of films, including Abe Lincoln in Illinois (as Mary Todd Lincoln), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (as Mrs. Ehrlich) and Action in the North Atlantic, in the early 1940s.
Ruth then married second husband, writer Garson Kanin, who was 16 years her junior, in 1942.
Ruth and Garson collaborated on the screenplays for the Katharine Hepburn – Spencer Tracy films Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). Both films were directed by George Cukor.
The couple became close friends of Hepburn and Tracy, and incorporated elements of their real personalities in the films.
Ruth and her husband received Academy Awards nominations for both of those screenplays.
Ruth then continued her on-stage acting career in the 1950s, and was nominated for a 1956 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play, for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, a role she also played in London, Edinburgh and Berlin.
Then in 1966, Ruth was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe award as Best Supporting Actress for Inside Daisy Clover opposite Natalie Wood.
Three years later, Ruth Gordon won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Minnie Castevet in the 1968 film “Rosemary’s Baby.”
In accepting the award, Ruth thanked the Academy by saying, “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is…And thank all of you who voted for me, and to everyone who didn’t: please, excuse me”, which drew laughs because at the time she had been in theater for fifty years and was seventy-two years old.
Gordon won another Golden Globe for Rosemary’s Baby, and was nominated again, in 1971, for her role as Maude in the cult classic Harold and Maude (with Bud Cort as her love interest).
She went on to appear in twenty-two more films and at least that many television appearances through her seventies and eighties, including such successful sitcoms as Rhoda (as Carlton the invisible doorman’s mother, which earned her another Emmy nomination) and Newhart. She also guest-starred on the episode Columbo: Try and Catch Me.
Ruth Gordon made countless talk show appearances, in addition to hosting Saturday Night Live in 1977.
Gordon won an Emmy Award for a guest appearance on the sitcom Taxi, for a 1978 episode called “Sugar Mama”, in which her character tries to solicit the services of a taxi driver, played by series star Judd Hirsch, as a male escort.
Her last Broadway appearance was as Mrs. Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, produced by Joseph Papp at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1976.
In the summer of 1976, Ruth starred in the leading role of her own play, Ho! Ho! Ho! at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts.
She also had a minor but memorable role as Ma Boggs, the mother of Orville Boggs (Geoffrey Lewis), in the Clint Eastwood films Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can.
In 1983, Ruth Gordon was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.
Harold and Maude and Adam’s Rib have both been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress.
Ruth Gordon died August 28, 1985 at the age of 88 from a stroke in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
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