Obituary: Tom Ewell

Yewell Tompkins (Tom Ewell), actor; born Owensboro, Kentucky 29 April 1909; twice married (one son); died Los Angeles 12 September 1994.

GO INTO any of the memorabilia stores along Hollywood Boulevard and you will find the same handful of icons: Mae West, Gable as Rhett, Bogart as Rick but always Marilyn Monroe with her skirts blowing up. It is a haunting image, but much more so when you can see Tom Ewell's bemused expression as he watches her in this scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955).

There is wit in the film's very title. Ewell's wife has left for a vacation and after seven years' marriage he is fantasising about a bit on the side while she is away. And that is all he does till the blonde upstairs (Monroe) drops a tomato plant from her balcony and is invited down for a drink. 'Hi] I'm the tomato. Remember?' she asks, as if he could ever forget. The most that transpires is a tumble off the piano stool. 'This is the first time this sort of thing ever happened to me,' he says. 'That's funny, it happens to me all the time,' she replies, apparently unaware that she has to be any man's ultimate sexual fantasy.

Ewell was not a box-office name, but when Billy Wilder saw him in George Axelrod's original play The Seven Year Itch on Broadway in 1952 he knew that nobody else could match Ewell's catalogue of leers, cunning grins and harassed deadpans, he all fumbles and she - in the film - all innocent logic. Incredibly, the New Yorker found the Monroe character 'too substantial for dreams' - but then, so did Ewell.

He had been a salesman in Macy's, in New York, before getting his first Broadway break in 1934. In his own words he was in more flops than seemed humanly possible, but he had established a sound stage reputation by the time George Cukor chose him to play Judy Holliday's husband in Adam's Rib (1949). She has attempted to murder him because he is two-timing her with an equally ditzy Jean Hagen. Spencer Tracy is prosecuting and his wife, Katharine Hepburn, decides to defend Holliday. Ewell, in a beautifully judged performance, doesn't know what to make of any of them. In 1950 Ewell played the head of a model agency who hires Lana Turner in A Life Of Her Own for Cukor and Bing Crosby's valet in Mr Music.

But for the Axelrod play he might have remained a character actor in movies. After the film version he returned to Broadway in The Tunnel Of Love (1957) with Nancy Olsen, from Peter de Vries's comic novel about a couple with baby-fever, and again in A Thurber Carnival (1960), a pastiche enjoyably cobbled from the great man's stories. He came to London with this and returned in 1968 in You Know I Can't Hear You When The Water's Running, four one-act plays by Robert Anderson, in the different roles taken by Martin Balsam in New York.

Ewell also did much television, including The Tom Ewell Show in 1960. Other movie roles include those in Henry King's version of Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night (1962), with Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones as the Divers and Ewell as the always slightly drunk composer Abe North, a character loosely based on Donald Ogden Stewart; and Alice Faye's husband, the pair of them the parents who take their children to the State Fair (1962), Jose Ferrer's remake of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

Both these films were fairly disastrous, but Ewell was luckier in two other movies in which he starred, both written and directed by Frank Tashlin: The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1955), as a television writer whose wife, Sheree North, re-enlists when he has to; and The Girl Can't Help It (1956), as a theatrical agent down on his luck who is hired by a mobster, Edmond O'Brien, to turn his moll into a star - Jayne Mansfield, who at that time was able to burlesque both herself and Monroe.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine