A couple of months ago I was watching Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth with my cousin who hasn’t watched that many classic films and when Ralph Bellamy appeared on screen she said, “Hey…where do I know him from”? “Probably Trading Places,” I replied to which she simply said, “wow.” I think that small, overused word describes the scope of Bellamy’s six-decades-long career quite nicely. Although the character Bellamy plays in The Awful Truth, that of a rich, innocent, nice guy who never ends up with the leading lady is what many of us remember him as, Ralph Bellamy the man was much more than that on- and off-screen.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Ralph Bellamy (June 17, 1904 – November 29, 1991) began his acting career in 1922 when he joined a traveling troupe of Shakespearian players. He made his Broadway debut in 1929 at the Belmont Theatre in the production of “Town Boy.” Although “Town Boy” closed after two performances it led to leading man roles with a stock company in Rochester, NY where he played opposite Helen Hayes.
Bellamy would also star in original Broadway productions of “Tomorrow the World” (Apr 14, 1943 – Jun 17, 1944), “Pretty Little Parlor” (Apr 17, 1944 – Apr 22, 1944), which he also produced, “State of the Union” (Nov 14, 1945 – Sep 13, 1947), “Detective Story” (Mar 23, 1949 – Aug 12, 1950) and “Sunrise at Campobello” (Jan 30, 1958 – May 30, 1959).
Mr. Bellamy made his film debut in George W. Hill’s The Secret Six in 1931, which stars Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Johnny Mack Brown and Jean Harlow along with a stellar supporting cast that includes up-and-comer, Clark Gable.
The Bellamy name appears on the credits of over 100 movies released between 1931 and 1990, which are way too many to name. I’ve chosen a few highlights, however, to honor the actor on the anniversary of his birthday starting with the aforementioned The Awful Truth because Ralph Bellamy received his only Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Daniel Leeson in this movie. He’s great in the role and this is one my all-time favorite movies, but this mention also serves as a reminder of a time when comedic performances were so honored on a regular basis.
Bellamy’s character in The Awful Truth is similar to his Bruce Baldwin in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) and just as memorable. SPOILER – he doesn’t get the girl in either of these, but in both cases he’s competing with Cary Grant. What are the chances for any mere human male?
Another favorite of mine is Bellamy’s stint as the person in charge of the investigation following the brutal attacks in George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941).
And because it’s such fun I say it’s worthy of a mention – Ralph Bellamy followed The Wolf Man with another Universal outing, Erle C. Kenton’s The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) where he plays town prosecutor, Erik Ernst.
For most of his career Ralph Bellamy played supporting roles in mostly B movies, but notably starred in a series of four as detective Ellery Queen between 1940 and 1941. The Bellamy series was the second featuring the character of Ellery Queen with the first in the 1930s featuring several actors as the detective, including Eddie Quillan and Lew Ayres with one of my favorite radio actors, William Gargan picking up the Queen mantle for entries released in 1942.
In 1960 Bellamy reprised his stage role as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Vincent J. Donehue’s Sunrise at Campobello, which depicts the President’s struggle with polio. Here he plays opposite Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt.
Ralph Bellamy’s portrayal of FDR is the most famous of his career although, as I mentioned, his older portrayals of the dull, but sweet guy who never gets the girl is the one classic fans most often discuss. Throughout his career Bellamy also played a fair number of detectives and lawyers and did a fine job at every turn. The mold was broken, however, when he agreed to play a devil worshipping doctor in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. in 1968. I admit that this movie creeps me to the max and Mr. Bellamy is partially responsible for that. To say it’s unsettling to see him in this role is an understatement probably because his acting is right on target. Clearly this wasn’t out of his comfort zone, but it is out of mine.
In 1983 Ralph Bellamy’s career had a resurgence of sorts as did that of his fellow veteran actor, Don Ameche when the two played brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke respectively in John Landis’ hugely popularTrading Places. Bellamy had not stopped acting for any length of time finding steady work on television since the birth of the medium, but he hadn’t appeared in a feature film since Carl Reiner’s Oh, God! in 1977. That said, his choice of roles in the relatively few feature films he appeared in late in his career was stellar as every single one of his last few films was a huge box office success.
In 1988 Ralph Bellamy played a supporting role as Grandfather opposite Teresa Wright as Grandmother in the Leonard Nimoy-directed drama, The Good Mother. There is a lot wrong with The Good Mother as the seriousness of the film’s subject matter – a mother who may lose custody of her young daughter due to practices deemed unacceptable – is lost due to confusing storytelling. But it so happens that the only scene that truly moves me in this movie, the only scene that is superbly acted is the one featuring Bellamy and Wright, which is why this is included here. Plus I love this image…
Ralph Bellamy’s last appearance in a film was as shipping magnate, James Morse in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990).
Bellamy’s TV career was at least as impressive as his film work if not more so. He made his television debut in 1948 in the “Philco Television Playhouse” and almost immediately went on to star in the medium’s first crime series, “Man Against Crime” in which he played New York private eye, Mike Barnett. I can’t resist sharing an episode so here’s “Washington Story,” the 36th episode of season 4, which originally aired on June 17, 1953 (Bellamy’s 49th birthday).
In 1961 Mr. Bellamy hosted several episodes of “Frontier Justice,” an anthology Western. From 1963 to 1964 he co-starred in the medical drama, “The Eleventh Hour” and in 1969 in “The Survivors,” a prime-time soap opera about “people who had it all, but want more.” Ralph’s co-stars in that soap included Lana Turner, Diana Muldaur, George Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy.
Ralph Bellamy continued working steadily as a guest star on popular series and made-for-TV movies for the rest of his career. He starred in two series in the 1970s, police procedural “The Mostly Deadly Game” in 1970 and spy drama “Hunter” in 1976. Perhaps most notably Mr. Bellamy portrayed Franklin Delano Roosevelt again in two mini-series, “The Winds of War” in 1983 and “War and Remembrance” in 1988.
I’d be remiss not to mention Ralph Bellamy’s radio work. Like most Golden Age actors he often appeared in radio versions of the movies he acted in as well as variety and game shows from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s. The most interesting show in Bellamy’s radio repertoire, however, is “The Tenth Man,” a series that lasted thirteen episodes during the 1947-1948 season. “The Tenth Man” was sponsored by The National Mental Health Foundation and it aimed at fostering awareness of mental health issues with its title stemming from a claim made at the onset of each episode that one in ten people suffer from some type of mental disorder. Ralph Bellamy was host and narrator in each episode, which tackled subjects ranging from depression to phobias to children’s issues to matters concerning the elderly. Here they are for your listening pleasure:
Ralph Bellamy won the Tony and New York’s Critics Circle Award as best actor in “Sunrise at Campobello.” For his TV work he received three primetime Emmy nominations to add to the one Oscar nod in 1938 for The awful Truth. In 1984 Bellamy was honored with a Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. An honorary Academy Award “For his unique artistry and his distinguished service to the profession of acting” followed three years later.
Mr. Bellamy was so honored by his peers because his was a distinguished career, but I imagine he was even more admired for the time he spent fighting for actors’ rights. He was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild and served four terms as president of the American Actors’ Equity during the turbulent McCarthy era during which many actors were among the blacklisted. Not only did Ralph Bellamy guide the members through those times ensuring there were rules established to protect them against unproved charges, but he fought relentlessly for fair wages and acceptable working conditions.
Due to a few of his standout roles we joke that Ralph Bellamy was destined to be alone, but in real life nothing was further from the truth. Mr. Bellamy was married four times with his last nuptials to Alice Murphy forging the perfect union. The two were married from 1949 until Ralph’s death in 1991. That long relationship and the number of actors who admired his dedication to the profession points to the fact that Ralph Bellamy had only “the nice” in common with those nice, rather dull guys who never got the girl roles he played so successfully. This well-admired actor left a legacy to be proud of.