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," the mother-in-law of 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 Jessie Irene Noblett in San Francisco, California, 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. 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. (According to Jim Jordan Jr., while playing the same circuit as Marian and Jim Jordan, Ryan suggested they include more comedy and patter in their show, which led to the creation of Fibber McGee and Molly.) 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.
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 1944 Irene played a ditsy secretary named Polly in a B-Movie titled Hot Rhythm with the beautiful Dona Drake. 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, Ryan was cast in 1962 as Daisy "Granny" Moses, the mother-in-law of patriarch J.D. "Jed" Clampett in 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 cast as Jed Clampett's cousin, Pearl Bodine.
In 1972, Ryan 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.
Tim and Irene Ryan were married in 1922 and divorced in 1942. She married a second time to 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. Her 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.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license