Obituary: Ross Elliott

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THE VETERAN character actor Ross Elliott had the sort of solid, reliable looks that made him ideal for playing functionaries such as bank managers, officers or town sheriffs, but in a career that spanned radio (as a member of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre Players he had a part in the notorious War of the Worlds broadcast), theatre, films and television, he proved himself equally adept in drama, comedy or westerns.

He will be remembered for two television shows in particular, The Virginian (in which he played Sheriff Abbott for two seasons), and I Love Lucy. In a classic 1952 episode of the latter show he was the director of a commercial in which Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) was to sponsor a liquid vitamin product, Vitameatavegamin. Lucy has to rehearse her speech several times: "Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? The answer to all your problems is in this little bottle. Vitameatavegamin contains vitamins, meat, vegetables and minerals . . ." After sampling the product, she adds, "It's so tasty, too, just like candy."

After repeated rehearsals, Lucy is totally inebriated since the liquid is 23 per cent alcohol, and her further attempts to polish her performance prove hilarious. "Lucy was fantastic," said Elliott. "An inspired clown in the classic sense. She was always the hardest worker on the set. Everything had to be perfect." Elliott's own contribution resulted in his later being given a recurring role on the series as press agent to Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz).

Born in New York City in 1917, Elliott grew up in the Bronx. "I went through the New York City school system and went to summer camp," he recalled. "I was lucky in that regard." He started doing one-act plays in camp, then went on to City College of New York where he graduated in 1937. "I worked in some variety shows and then summer stock. Stock companies would put on a different play each week, so the actor received very thorough training - one week you may be the lead, next week a small role."

Elliott then joined the Mercury Theatre, and was cast in their inaugural stage production, a landmark modern-dress, 90-minute version of Julius Caesar (1937) set in a totalitarian fascist state and directed by Welles, who also played Brutus. Though he had a minor role, Elliott stated that he never forgot the experience of the powerful mob scenes, especially the murder of the poet Cinna (Norman Lloyd), described by the critic Granville Vernon as "a scene which for power and sinister meaning has never been surpassed in the American theatre".

Two days after Welles had caused radio listeners to believe Earth was being invaded by aliens during his broadcast of War of the Worlds, Elliott opened on Broadway in Mercury's production of Danton's Death (1938), which lasted for only 21 performances, and he later toured in Welles's Five Kings (an amalgam of five Shakespeare plays) which never reached Broadway. "I remember only chaos - it was a huge production performed on a revolving stage, and in Philadelphia they didn't have the electricity to operate it so it had to be turned by hand and we actors were left stranded at the end of scenes waiting for the stage to reach the right point."

Leaving Mercury, Elliott joined the post-Broadway tour of the hit play What a Life (1938) directed by George Abbott and starring Ezra Stone as trouble-prone student Henry Aldrich (Stone was to play the same role in an ensuing radio series). Elliott played the villain of the piece, who steals the school's band instruments and allows Aldrich to be suspected of the crime. He and Stone became good friends, and they met again when Elliott joined the army in 1941. "I met Ezra walking along the street at Camp Upton. He asked me to join the drama group he had founded at the camp - Gary Merrill and Ralph Nelson were other members - and we did a play, then became part of the core group cast in Irving Berlin's wonderful show This is the Army." Elliott toured the world in the show, and was featured in the 1943 film version.

After his discharge from the army, he returned to the theatre to tour with Walter Huston in Apple of His Eye ("I followed Tom Ewell in that, he was leaving to get married"). When the show closed in Detroit, he moved out to Hollywood, where one of his first films was Angel on the Amazon (1948), starring Vera Ralston as a woman who has stopped ageing due to shock. His best screen role was in Norman Foster's Woman on the Run (1950) in which, as the husband of Ann Sheridan, he witnesses a gangland killing and goes into hiding, prompting his wife to track him down. "In Woman on the Run," said Elliott, "it looked like I might make it as a leading man, and I did a lot of leading men parts, but always character leads. It never quite paid off."

One of his leading roles was in E.A. Dupont's low-budget melodrama Problem Girls (1953), set in a home for mentally deranged girls, in which he played a psychology instructor who discovers a plot by the school's owner (Helen Walker) involving larceny and murder, and he had a key role in one of Tim Holt's best westerns, Hot Lead (1957), as a telegrapher who joins the villains so that he can pass on to Holt the time and location of the next robbery. "Westerns were kind of fun for a kid brought up in New York."

Other films included D-Day, the Sixth of June (1956, as Major Mills), Kelly's Heroes (1970), Skyjacked (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), but Elliott became more prolific on television, appearing in over 200 shows including Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone and Rawhide while also doing stage work. "I married my wife Sue in 1954, and in that summer I went down to La Jolla to do a play and had a great time. Prior to that, Louise Rainer was attempting a comeback and that was a kick for me; we did Joan of Lorraine at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood."

Elliott's wedding was actually postponed because of his work on I Love Lucy. "They wanted me for an episode entitled Don Juan and the Starlets. It was to shoot the week Sue and I were to be married. We decided to postpone the ceremony until after the filming." In the episode Lucy tries hard to get into the publicity shots being taken of Ricky and five gorgeous starlets to promote Ricky's film role as Don Juan. When she asks Elliott why she should not be in the photographs with her husband, he replies, "Don Juan is all about love; it has nothing to do with marriage."

Along with the Lucy shows, Elliott had particularly fond memories of his parts in the Jack Benny and Burns and Allen shows. "I have several favourite roles. One is a little part I played on an early episode of Kung Fu, and it wasn't a leading role. I played a cavalry officer stuck in this backwater and somehow, when that finished, I said to Sue, `I wish that was a painting so I could hang it on the mantelpiece.' "

Reflecting recently on his career, Elliott stated, "When I was younger you'd hear people talking about the good old days, and suddenly I find myself reminiscing about the good old days; and they were good days and they were exciting. I'm afraid the younger actors today have a harder time breaking in than we had. There was a day that you could make it as a good supporting actor and just never stop working."

Ross Elliott, actor: born New York 18 June 1917; married; died Los Angeles 12 August 1999.