Kathleen Freeman

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Kathleen Freeman, actress: born Chicago 17 February 1919; died New York 23 August 2001.

Kathleen Freeman was a much-loved character actress whom many will remember in the classic musical Singin' in the Rain as Phoebe Dinsmore, the diction coach trying desperately to teach silent screen star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) to speak in "round tones, round tones" to cope with the advent of talkies. Chubby and jowly, with a perpetually furrowed brow, she was also memorable as the vicious nun who torments John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, and in several movies she made with Jerry Lewis.

Recently she had a Broadway triumph in the musical The Full Monty, for which she received a Tony nomination and in which she was still appearing at the time of her death. Such was her popularity with audiences that every night her first appearance in the show would be greeted with a huge ovation.

The daughter of a vaudeville song-and-dance team, Dixon and Freeman, Freeman was born in Chicago in 1919, though "I used to lie about my age, making myself older for roles, and they took me seriously". She made her first stage appearance with her parents at the age of two during the dying days of vaudeville. "I would sing a song like I knew what I was doing," she said. "Apparently, I didn't."

Her parents eventually gave up performing, and Freeman was studying music at the University of California in Los Angeles when, she said, "A terrible thing happened. I got in a play and I got a laugh. I just said a line, and 'boom'." It set her on a lifetime career as an actress, and during the Forties she belonged to two prominent Los Angeles theatre companies, the Circle and Players Ring Theatres, where she worked under such directors as Charles Chaplin, Charles Laughton and Robert Morley.

She made her screen début with a one-line part in The Naked City (1948), playing a schoolgirl on the subway whose line, "Didja read about the bathtub murder?", was spoken while leaning over the shoulder of a detective (Don Taylor). It was the first of over 100 film roles, including a rare leading part in the 20-minute short Annie was a Wonder (1949), in which as Annie, a Swedish immigrant who becomes servant to a farming family at the turn of the century, she gave an endearingly warm portrayal of dedication and devotion.

She could, though, be equally memorable as a battle-axe, nosy neighbour, recalcitrant maid or bossy housekeeper. Her stentorian voice coach in Singin' in the Rain (1952), frustrated in her efforts to teach squeaky-voiced Lamont to articulate the line "And I can't stand him", is one of the many joys of that movie – later Freeman was to be a real-life acting coach when she was hired by the producer Jud Kinberg to train Samantha Eggar for her role in The Collector (1965).

Other parts in which Freeman made particular impact include her drunken Swedish prospector who lambasts a perplexed John Wayne in North to Alaska (1960), the housekeeper who conspires to prevent Jerry Lewis from discovering that the boarding-house in which he is working is populated only by girls in Ladies' Man (1961) and the vindictive nun Sister Mary Stigmata who beats John Belushi over the head with a ruler in The Blues Brothers (1980).

Both Jerry Lewis and the director Frank Tashlin were admirers of Freeman and used her frequently. She appeared in eight films with Lewis, saying,

At the risk of getting in trouble, we were awfully good together. He is in the same madcap genre I feel I'm in: clowns and crazy people.

Among her films with Lewis were Artists and Models (1955), The Errand Boy (1961), The Nutty Professor (1962) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964). Lewis said last year,

I have never known an artist who loved doing what they do more than Kathleen. She comes to work with such an energy and a passion.

Her other movies included A Place in the Sun (1951), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The Far Country (1955), The Fly (1958), Point Blank (1967) and Gremlins 2 (1990). Her last screen role was as the old woman in Shrek (2000). "This will sound very corny, and I'm sorry," she said,

but I have always felt that I was put here to do this: I am somebody who is around to help the world laugh.

On television she had her first regular sitcom role as the maid in Topper (1953/4). She and Phil Silvers appeared in two outstanding episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies as con-artists who sell the Clampett family the Washington Monument, the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial when they are visiting Washington. In Hogan's Heroes, she played Frau Linkmeier, the great love of Colonel Klink, and she also appeared in The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show and many others.

Though active in the theatre in Los Angeles, Freeman did not make her Broadway début until 1978, when she appeared with Louis Jourdan in the Feydeau farce 13 Rue de l'Amour as Madame Spritzer, a dissolute countess. The theatre critic Walter Kerr, praising the actress's flair for comedy, wrote, "Even in mid-flight, she has the patience to sit on a line, to isolate it, and nail it to the floor."

She also toured with several shows, having notable success as Miss Hannigan, the soused orphanage head in Annie, and touring with Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year (as a German maid). Last autumn she returned to Broadway in The Full Monty, playing Jeanette Burchmeister, a salty, tough-talking pianist. It was a role which the show's creators, the composer David Yazbek and the writer Terrence McNally, added late in the writing process, and does not exist in the film. "It's the kind of character who's been around," said the actress, "and God knows I have."

Her entrance, lurching up from behind a piano at the end of Act One, always received one of the biggest ovations of the night. She regarded her Tony nomination as "a hoot", and said that she did not care about winning, though friends stated that she was in fact disappointed (it was one of those years when one show – The Producers – dominated the awards). Last Saturday she played in both matinée and evening performances, but fell ill on Sunday.

Tom Vallance