ZaSu Pitts (/ˈseɪzuː ˈpɪts/; née Eliza Susan Pitts; January 3, 1894 - June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning to mostly comedies with the advent of sound films. She is best known for her performance in Erich Von Stroheim's epic silent Greed.
Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas, to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.
The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname "ZaSu", i.e. to satisfy competing family interests. She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæzuː/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzeɪsuː/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzeɪzuː/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈseɪzuː/, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted, "Many will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right she was."
In 1903, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.
Pitts made her stage debut in 1914-15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford. Years later, she was the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, released as Hello, Sister! (1933).
Pitts' popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 9 ⁄2-hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release--the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours--the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made.
Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy short films, teamed with Thelma Todd. She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach short films and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy short films and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite her intense performance. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). In 1936 and 1937 she portrayed Hildegarde Withers in two movies, succeeding Edna May Oliver as the spinster sleuth, but they were not well-received.
In the 1940s, she found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. Pitts' activities on radio included playing Miss Mamie Wayne on the soap opera Big Sister. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband.
In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, did well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah) in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" on the ABC sitcom, Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, Pitts appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason, "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her final role was a switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery, an actor, became a well-known Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children: Ann Gallery (born 1922) and Donald Michael "Sonny" Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 death of his mother and Pitts' friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr. In 1933, she married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.
She was a Republican, and became active in the party in 1958.
Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. She continued to work, however, appearing on television and making a brief appearance in The Thrill of It All (1963) and in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.
Zasu Pitts was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Her star is on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard. In 1994 her importance as a silent film star was affirmed when she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp along with luminaries such as Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set, designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.
Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Pitts.
Little Princess, TheThe Little Princess
How Could You Jean?
Talk of the Town, TheThe Talk of the Town
Other Half, TheThe Other Half
Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
Seeing It Through
Youth to Youth
Mary of the Movies
Souls for Sale
Three Wise Fools
West of the Water Tower
Daughters of Today
A Factory Girl
The Fast Set
Great Divide, TheThe Great Divide
Great Love, TheThe Great Love
Sunny Side Up
Casey at the Bat
Released only in Europe
Wedding March, TheThe Wedding March
Sins of the Fathers
Locked Door, TheThe Locked Door
Her Private Life
This Thing Called Love
No, No, Nanette
Devil's Holiday, TheThe Devil's Holiday
Bad Sister, TheThe Bad Sister
A Woman of Experience
Penrod and Sam
Alternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
Guardsman, TheThe Guardsman
Liesl, the Maid
On the Loose
Anna, Holderlin's Maid
Destry Rides Again
Alternative title: Justice Rides Again
Blondie of the Follies
Crooked Circle, TheThe Crooked Circle
Make Me a Star
Strangers of the Evening
They Just Had to Get Married
Meet the Baron
Elmerada de Leon
Sing and Like It
Matilda Ounce Hemingway
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
Gay Bride, TheThe Gay Bride
Ruggles of Red Gap
Thirteen Hours by Air
The Plot Thickens
Forty Naughty Girls
Lady's from Kentucky, TheThe Lady's from Kentucky
Naughty but Nice
Aunt Penelope Hardwick
It All Came True
No, No Nanette
Bashful Bachelor, TheThe Bashful Bachelor
So's Your Aunt Emma
Alternative title: Meet the Mob
Let's Face It!
Breakfast in Hollywood
Life with Father
Cousin Cora Cartwright
Nurse Valerie Humpert
Denver and Rio Grande
Francis Joins the WACS
Lt. Valerie Humpert
This Could Be the Night
Mrs. Katie Shea
Teenage Millionaire, TheThe Teenage Millionaire
Thrill of It All, TheThe Thrill of It All
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Best of Broadway, TheThe Best of Broadway
Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
Screen Directors Playhouse
Episode: "The Silent Partner"
20th Century Fox Hour, TheThe 20th Century Fox Hour
Episode: "Mr. Belvedere"
Gale Storm Show, TheThe Gale Storm Show
Episode: "Not Quite Paradise"
Dennis O'Keefe Show, TheThe Dennis O'Keefe Show
Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
Episode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
Episode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?"
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license