Irene Ryan (October 17, 1902 - April 26, 1973) was an American actress, one of the few entertainers who found success in vaudeville, radio, film, television and Broadway.
Ryan is most widely known for her portrayal of "Granny," opposite Buddy Ebsen's character, on the long-running TV series The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), for which she was nominated for Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1963 and 1964.
Early life and career:
Ryan was born Irene Eileen Noblett in El Paso, Texas, the daughter of James Merritt Noblett and Catherine "Katie" McSharry. Her father was from North Carolina and her mother was a native of Ireland. She had one sister, Anna, who was 17 years older than she. Ryan and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was a child. She began her career at the age of 11 after winning $3 for singing "Pretty Baby" in an amateur contest at the Valencia Theater in San Francisco.
At the age of 20, she married writer-comedian Tim Ryan. They performed in vaudeville as a double act, known in show business as a "Dumb Dora" routine and epitomized by George Burns and Gracie Allen. Billed as "Tim and Irene", they had their own series of short subjects in the 1930s for Educational Pictures, and later worked in feature films for Monogram Pictures.
Substituting for Jack Benny in 1936, they starred in The Jello Summer Show on NBC's "Red" Network. Recordings (made on 78 rpm 12" lacquer disks) of the shows of September 20 and September 27 (the latter the last of the series) exist. Don Wilson, Benny's announcer, was on those two shows. Presumably, he announced all of them.
After the couple divorced in 1942, Ryan toured with Bob Hope, making regular appearances on his radio show, and also played Edgar Kennedy's wife in two of his series of short films in 1943. That same year, she appeared in the country music film O, My Darling Clementine starring Roy Acuff as a singing sheriff. In 1946 she married Harold E. Knox, who worked in film production. She continued to work in motion pictures of the late 1940s and early 1950s, generally playing fussy or nervous women. In January 1955, Ryan made her first television sitcom appearance on an episode of CBS's The Danny Thomas Show. She 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, Ryan was cast in three episodes in the role of Cynthia Boyle.
The Beverly Hillbillies:
After her divorce from Knox the prior year, Irene was cast in 1962 as Daisy "Granny" Bodine née 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 Ryan 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 Benaderet saw Ryan's tryout, she agreed. Benaderet was then cast as Jed Clampett's cousin Pearl Bodine.
In 1972, Ryan helped to create and also starred in the role of Berthe in the Bob Fosse-directed Broadway musical Pippin, in which she sang the number "No Time At All", which mentions, "a man who calls me Granny." In 1973, Ryan was nominated for Broadway's 1973 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Musical) for her performance in the musical. She lost to Patricia Elliott (A Little Night Music), in a ceremony held about a month prior to Ryan's death. After Ryan's death, the role of Berthe was assumed by veteran actress Dorothy Stickney.
Tim and Irene Ryan were married in 1922 and divorced in 1942. Ryan married her second husband, Harold E. Knox, in 1946; they divorced in 1961. Both unions were childless.
On March 10, 1973, Ryan suffered a stroke during a performance of Pippin. She flew home to California on her doctor's orders and was hospitalized. She died at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California on April 26, 1973.
Ryan's body was interred in a mausoleum crypt at the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica beside her sister, Anna Thompson.
Legacy and charitable causes:
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. In 1975 the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship was won by student/actor Talbot Perry Simons who performed in the stage production of "Lenny" written by Julian Barry about the life of comedian Lenny Bruce.