Ruth Warrick

Actress best remembered for 'Citizen Kane'

Ruth Warrick, actress: born St Joseph, Missouri 29 June 1915; married 1938 Erik Rolf (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1950, 1960 Carl Neubert (marriages dissolved), 1953 Bob McNamara (one son; marriage dissolved 1960), 1972 Frank Freda (marriage dissolved 1973), 1975 L. Jarvis Cushing Jnr (marriage dissolved); died New York 15 January 2005.

Ruth Warrick made her screen début playing what would remain the most memorable movie role of her career, that of the wife of the newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles's 1941 film Citizen Kane.

Although she had featured roles in other major films, including The Corsican Brothers, Guest in the House, Forever and a Day and Daisy Kenyon, her screen career failed to ignite. She was to find her greatest fame, and a new audience, when she played the role of Phoebe Tyler, a matriarch in a daytime television soap opera, All My Children, in which her impact on American viewers was similar to that made internationally by Joan Collins in Dynasty. Also, if Warrick's screen career was unremarkable, her private life was not. She was married six times, and a few years ago made tabloid headlines when she announced that Liza Minnelli's husband, David Gest, had proposed to her first.

Born in 1915 in St Joseph, Missouri, she studied drama, literature and music at the University of Missouri, having decided to be an actress at the age of six, when her father took her to see a production of Blossom Time. That ambition seemed thwarted when she grew to a height of 5ft 7in, but she renewed hope after seeing the 1932 film Grand Hotel, with Greta Garbo ("taller than I and with even bigger feet").

In 1938 she won a contest to be a paid ambassador to publicise an arts festival in Kansas City. Her success in the role prompted a move to New York where, after a brief modelling job, she obtained work playing small roles on radio shows, including a leading soap opera of the time, Joyce Jordan, Girl Interne. It was in a lounge at CBS that she met a star radio actor, Erik Rolf, who became her first husband in 1938.

Another casual meeting that proved significant was one with Orson Welles. Later, when casting Citizen Kane (1941), he recalled Warrick's cool, patrician manner and sent for her to test for the role of Kane's genteel wife, Emily. "I'm not looking for an actress who can play a lady," he told her. "I want an actress who is a lady." The first scene shot for the film was the breakfast sequence in which the disintegration of the Kanes' marriage is charted by glimpses of the couple at the breakfast table over the course of years. While Emily remains detached and ladylike throughout, Kane's character changes dramatically. "That scene has probably been seen by more people than any other bit of film, because it's been shown over and over again," Warrick said:

People say, "It must have taken a long time to do that." Actually, it was the simplest thing we did in the whole picture. All we did was take the time to change Orson's make-up, and all they did with me was change my hair. He didn't direct me at all - we knew our characters. I didn't want to plan it too much, just play off him because that's what the scene really is. And I did.

Confirming that it was the favourite of her films ("I'd be foolish not to feel that way about it") she recalled that, at the New York premiere, Paul Stewart, who played Kane's butler in the film, said to her, "From this night on, wherever we go or whatever we do in our lives, we will always be identified with Citizen Kane." Warrick said,

I have sometimes thought that we were all a little bit in love with Orson then, in our various ways. He wanted so much from us, and he tried to give so much of himself, that we all lived in an atmosphere far beyond mere companionship.

In her autobiography, The Confessions of Phoebe Tyler (1980), Warrick revealed that she and Welles had a brief romantic liaison (which Welles confirmed with his biographer Patricia Leaming). Describing him as "a poet of the first magnitude", she adds,

You can see this most clearly in the reaction of young viewers who see the film for the first time. To them, for whom so much of the early Hollywood product seems utterly silly now, Citizen Kane retains its capacity to startle and to move. Like all genuine art, it remains forever contemporary.

Given a contract with RKO, Warrick starred with Edmond O'Brien and the child actress Joan Carroll in a modest but amusingly zany comedy, Obliging Young Lady (1941), then starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jnr in The Corsican Brothers (1941), but she found herself restricted by the strait-laced persona she had established. "In movie after movie, I was the reserved, poised, competent wife, loving but rarely passionate, and certainly never sultry." She was the stoic wife of Joseph Cotton in Norman Foster's Journey into Fear (1942), a muddled version of Eric Ambler's novel about international espionage co-starring Welles, who "supervised" the direction. As the wife of Pat O'Brien in the inspirational war tale The Iron Major (1942), she was the mother of seven children.

She now had two children of her own, a daughter Karen and a son Jon. "Erik bore a notable resemblance to Orson," she wrote, "often commented on by friends, and baby Karen resembled them both, a thing that was to cause much embarrassing surmise in years to come."

In the all-star melodrama promoting the cause of wartime Britain Forever and a Day (1943), Warrick played an American girl who travels to London to claim her ancestral home, most of the film dealing with stories of the mansion's history. She had one of her better roles in John Brahm's Guest in the House (1944), a moody piece in which she tries to save her marriage to an architect (Ralph Bellamy) which is threatened by a voluptuous model (Marie McDonald) and the machinations of the psychotic title character (Anne Baxter).

She played the wife of a mild bank clerk (Edward G. Robinson) in Mr Winkle Goes to War (1944), despite Robinson's small stature, although her height had occasionally cost her roles:

The producer of an Alan Ladd film once took me aside and said, "Forget it. We have to dig trenches for his leading ladies to walk in as it is, but with you we'd have to put him on a ladder."

In China Sky (1944), she had a role intended for Claudette Colbert, that of a doctor serving in Asia. Randolph Scott was her leading man, but it was Anthony Quinn, playing a villainous warlord, with whom she embarked on a torrid affair.

While her career had a steady momentum, Erik had been given only a few character parts, usually as Nazi officers, and according to Warrick spent most of his time playing tennis and drinking, which would lead to violent rages. She discovered that he had been having homosexual affairs, and they divorced in 1945, shortly after acting together as husband and wife in the Disney production Song of the South (1945). She married five more times, although two were to the same man, and had another son, Tim.

She had a good role in Otto Preminger's stylish soap opera Daisy Kenyon (1946), as the shrewish wife of Dana Andrews, with Joan Crawford and Henry Fonda heading the strong cast. Driftwood (1947), in which she played a schoolmistress, was a charming rustic tale, primarily a vehicle for the gifted child actress Natalie Wood. She was then cast in the coveted role of Kate, the dying madcap heiress, in the prestigious screen version of Erich Maria Remarque's Arch of Triumph (1947), publicised as a part that would make her a superstar:

When they previewed it, the cards came back not very good. They said it was too long, and decided to cut 45 minutes out of the picture. My part was the sub-plot that could be excised easier than anything else. It broke my heart, because I thought it was going to be a huge stepping-stone.

At the same time, an affair with her agent, Kurt Frings, ended acrimoniously, and he threatened to have her blacklisted. After she played the stock role of Fred Astaire's socialite fiancée in Let's Dance (1950) and one of three wives suspected of infidelity in Three Husbands (1950), her film career came to a halt. Moving to New York, she played in several live television shows before her first recurring role on a daytime soap, The Guiding Light (1953-54).

She realised her ambition to do a stage musical when she toured in The King and I (1955), and later she understudied both female leads, Eileen Herlie and Una Merkel, in the musical Take Me Along (1959). (Herlie was later to be on the cast of All My Children.) In 1973 she was featured in the Broadway revival of Irene, starring Debbie Reynolds, who supported her when the original director, John Gielgud, wanted her replaced.

In 1976 she became the hostess singer at a Manhattan night-club, meeting and greeting guests. Variety noted that she "possesses a regal bearing and well-developed soprano pipes". On television, she starred with Leon Ames in the series Father of the Bride (1961-62), and had the recurring role of Hannah Cord, Martin Peyton's housekeeper, in the hit night-time soap Peyton Place (1965-67).

All My Children made its début in 1970 on daytime television, with Warrick starring as Phoebe Tyler Wallingford, the dominating grande dame of a fictitious town, Pine Valley. The show has a reputed 50 million viewers. "It is," she wrote, "as if the imaginary girl who was Kane's wife had grown into the woman who influences so many lives in the imaginary world of Pine Valley."

Tom Vallance

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