Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Kathleen Freeman

There are not many two-year olds who get written up in Variety. But one of them was Kathleen Freeman.

You know her as a character actress who was funny in everything she did on television in the ‘60s. Jerry Lewis loved her and cast her in movies. But way back in 1925, she made headlines (albeit small ones) for her feat of being the world’s greatest globe-trotting youngster, having travelled 30,000 miles around the world with her parents, who were vaudevillians. (She was born in Chicago on February 17, 1923, according to official records, not in 1919).

While she appeared in movies and television, she also spent the 1950s in stage work in Los Angeles and then toured in the late 1970s and 1980s in the musical “Annie.”

Here are a couple of feature stories I’ve found about her. The first is from the National Enterprise Association and touches on her latest role at the time—a starring turn on a sitcom with Dom DeLuise, based on the Britcom On the Buses. The latter ran for quite a spell. Freeman’s effort with DeLuise was quickly cancelled. This appeared in papers on August 17, 1973.
TVs Popular Toughie
By Joan Crosby
BURBANK (NEA)—KATHLEEN Freeman has one of the most familiar faces in Hollywood but probably not too many people outside Movieland can attach a name to it. She's the tough pioneer woman driving a wagon in westerns or she's the tough cookie prison guard in ladies' prison pictures, or she's the tough cookie comic or somebody's mother-in-law in situation comedies.
Now she's in her own series, "Lotsa Luck," Mondays at 8 p.m., and she's playing the tough cookie mother of series star Dom DeLuise. Someone asked her recently what she really thought of the series and her large face suddenly dropped into contours of sadness. "I gotta be honest," she said, then her face did a sudden upswing into a smile and she said, "I think it's marvelous."
Then she launches into raves over Dom, saying "I think he's one of the best actors around and I don't believe he has ever been in situations before, like in our show, where you see his humanity.
"You know, it's so easy to live in Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco or Chicago and get in a mental state where you think the entire United States is like those cities. We live in a put-down society in places like that where it's popular to put down a show like 'Lotsa Luck' which deals with a family that struggles.
"But let's face it. The yachting crowd is not the majority. The family that struggles is. So far, television hasn't done much to celebrate the guy who struggles and still makes it work. But that's what we're doing.
"You know, if you want to hear ego, here's some. I think 'Lotsa Luck' will be a hit because of Dom and because, after 25 years, I'm due." Kathleen, who founded both the Player's Ring and the Gallery Theater in Los Angeles, is also a dramatic coach. Probably her most spectacular result was coaching she did for Samantha Eggar, when she was doing "The Collector."
"She got an Oscar nomination and a Cannes Festival award," Kathleen says proudly, "and we became good friends."
Lotsa Luck needed more than luck. It needed ratings. And a change in time-slot didn’t help. It died after 22 episodes. But Freeman’s career wasn’t hurt in the slightest.

The Boston Globe’s William A. Henry III went more in depth about her in this feature article, talking about the frustrations of typecasting and Freeman’s union activities (at one point, she was involved in an oral history project with the Screen Actors Guild. This was published on February 27, 1980.
"The world knows my name," she said. "And they almost know my face."
Her eyes bulged slightly from beneath a squared-off brow. Her mouth slashed across her face just above a blocky chin. Her head jutted forward nearly every time she spoke.
She looked combative, and the world expected her to be combative, as it has every time it saw her face, since she was a girl. She is tender and humane and in her way beautiful, but life has compelled her, on stage and off, to play the battleax.
"I'd like to get away from this aggressive, obnoxious, frustrated woman they always see me as," she said. "But I can't. I keep telling myself that someday I will."
Her face has made her, if not rich and famous, at least prosperous and recognized.
She has never been the romantic leading lady, not in her three television series, her dozens of Broadway and road-show plays, her 150-plus films. She has hardly ever had the kind of part that wins awards. She lives in Van Nuys, not Beverly Hills, and she stays at the Bradford, not the Ritz. But her life is her work, and she is always working.
Her ability to find endless variations of the same character has won her the respect of her peers. They elected her a vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, where she fights passionately against British imports and low-wage American productions on public television, against federal government filmmaking with nonunion casts and crews ("there are about 150 government films, made with your tax dollars, about how to brush your teeth"), above all against the way women on network television almost all die, disappear or turn weird at age 40.
But Kathleen Freeman is still known to the world as a face, not a name, as an attitude, not an actress.
Throughout her run at the Wilbur Theater, where "Deathtrap" ends a 16-month national tour this weekend, people have come up to her to pour out praise for her television roles as Dom DeLuise's mother, Topper's maid, Sandy Duncan's landlady. Some even remembered her featured bit in "Singin' In The Rain."
When they had spoken they edged aside, waited for the right moment, and hissed a question into the ear of her nearest companion. Freeman always guessed the question. It was: "What's her name?"
She usually laughs about it. She waves merrily to people who are suddenly staring at her, half-excited, half-perplexed, knowing they know her but not knowing how they know. Nonetheless she longs for wealth and glory. Steady labor and second billing are not enough.
She wants her own television series so badly that she commissioned a script. "It's about a woman my age — which is 52, I don't mind saying, since I've been playing mothers of actresses my own age and men who are older for so long everyone thinks I must be 70. She is happily married and her children are grown up so she has a job and her husband has a job and they fight all the time and adore each other. It's normal life."
For the past several years she has tried to peddle it to the networks. No one bought it.
"But it will happen. Middle-aged women are the majority of wives and mothers in this country. Sooner or later they are going to get tired of seeing themselves as grotesque or ridiculous or as a bizarre like Maude. It is a violent, revolutionary situation" — in two sentences her voice had escalated from wistful to hortatory to mad — "and change will come. It will be forced. I know that sounds terrible but I feel violent about it.
"I don't suggest there will be a major revolution with pots and pans and broomsticks coming down the streets" — she was subsiding now, the years of public combat giving way to the private gentleness — "but you cannot make people go away and keep them forever quiet."
Freeman and Kathleen Nolan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, guided a recent study of network TV that claimed only four female characters clearly past 40 have leading roles in series — Barbara Bel Geddes of "Dallas," Doris Roberts of "Angie," Nancy Marchand of "Lou Grant," all of whom would more accurately be characterized as supporting players, and Sada Thompson of "Family," which is folding.
Perhaps other actresses should have been included. Audra Lindley of "The Ropers" and Isabel Sanford of "The Jeffersons" have parts as big as Marchand's. Like hers, too, their characters often approach the ridiculous or bizarre.
"And none of them," Freeman argues, "has her own series. None of them has both a good job and a happy marriage. None of them is a symbol of success."
Indeed some of them resemble the "aggressive, obnoxious, frustrated woman" Kathleen Freeman so often plays. So long as those parts are predominant for women over 40, Kathleen Freeman can keep working. "I don't think about that. There's this anger inside me . . . and maybe that's what shows on my face."
Freeman never did land that starring role, but she kept extremely busy for the rest of her life. She died on August 23, 2001, only several months after her voice could be heard in Shrek. She was always in demand; the mark of a good actress.


  1. Everything she added her talents to was better for it. Especially her Desi-Lu years. She had the knack of delivery every line with perfect timing. Oldest movie I saw her in with a speaking part was " The Story of Molly-X " from 1948. One of those " women in prison " films. A fist fight breaks out between Dorothy Hart and June Havoc. You can see a young Freeman shouting " Hit her...look out!!! " A class act and great actress.

  2. Freeman might have reached some level of stardom had she not been ousted from the role of Alice on The Brady Bunch, for which she had initially been cast, in favor of Ann B. Davis. Then again, considering how that series' long-term popularity boxed in most of the cast for the rest of their lives, perhaps Freeman lucked out.

    1. Interesting, that she had been originally cast as Alice. That probably explains this Brady Bunch comic, where Alice looks more like Freeman than Davis - perhaps drawn before the show premiered:

      One of her last TV appearances was on an episode of "Becker," the Ted Danson sitcom.