Rexford Bellamy was born in Chicago to Charles Rexford Bellamy and Lilla
Louise Smith. He would be the eldest of three children. His father worked at the Barnes Crosby advertising agency. When he was
young, he lived with his widowed maternal grandmother, father, mother,
brother and sister. He lived in an apartment at 5709 Kimberk Avenue on
Chicago's South side. He moved from Chicago at the age of 5. He was raised
Baptist and was extremely close with his red-haired grandmother; and his
first experience with death was the death of his 24 day old brother and then
his grandmother. He received his first semi-acting class (which
he would later term 'ham acting') from his Great Aunt Ella.
He attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. He was president of the Drama Club there. Soon after, he would leave, being expelled for smoking on school grounds. So in 1922 he joined a traveling troupe of Shakespearean players. Later that same year, Bellamy performed in stock and repertory theatres with the Chautauqua Road Company.
His very first major role touring in "The
Shepherd of the Hills," an Ozark melodrama, had him playing two roles: the
father of the lead (who was almost ten years Ralph's senior) and the villain.
Overall, he spent nine years in repertory and touring companies, playing over 400 roles, including an average of two or three in each play. Returning to New York, he spent some time with a stock company on Long Island at $50 a week while he and Melvyn Douglas haunted the offices of Broadway agents. Finally, Bellamy won a part in "Town Boy" (1929) on Broadway. It closed after two performances, but it led to a good job as leading man with a stock company in Rochester, where he played opposite Helen Hayes.(5)
Often a leading man, Bellamy achieved greater success in supporting roles as
"the other man". In a
career that spanned six decades on stage and screen, Bellamy played roles that
fell into three broad categories: 1) the rich, reliable, but dull figure who is
jilted by the leading lady, 2) the detective who always finds his prey, and 3)
the slightly sinister but stylish villain. Usually appearing in supporting
roles, Bellamy often said he never regarded himself as a leading man, so no one
else did either.
He earned an Oscar nomination as Cary Grant's
rival for Irene Dunne
in "The Awful Truth"
with the film shot in six weeks with a minor script. The film itself was
Ralph parodied himself in the brilliant comedy
But in 1942, he spotted a script on a producer's desk which had scribbled the description of the casting for a particular part, "Wealthy oilman from Southwest - able, but simple and naive. Typical Ralph Bellamy part." He immediately took his leave of Hollywood and its typecasting of him, knowing it was no more than a job. He took his risks, however, being at the height of a lucrative career for Broadway. As luck would have it, he had a string of stage and television successes that he would value more than any of his early films, along with the occasional film.
In 1943, he played an antifascist professor in a Broadway melodrama written by James Gow and Arnaud d'Usseau, "Tomorrow the World" or "Tomorrow's World." In 1945, he played a lionized Presidential aspirant in Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Pulitzer Prize winning comedy "State of the Union," (incidentally, Spence would reprise the role in a film of the same name).
August 1945 Ralph married Ethel Smith and the couple lived in Ethel's Park Vendome apartment. In 1947 Bellamy walked out, stating that he had no intention of paying his wife alimony. Ethel charged abandonment and claimed that he drank heavily, that he was moody, and would lock himself in his room. The organist said her husband became jealous when at their parties she received most of the attention. Bellamy contended that she had advised him to be home fifteen minutes after his final curtain or he would find the door locked. (3)
In 1948 he made his a television debut in the Philco Television Playhouse. After divorcing his third wife and paying for continuing medical bills for his daughter, Bellamy had little finances when he was offered the part of Detective McLeod, an overzealous police officer, in Sidney Kingsley's drama "Detective Story" (1949). The play was a hit and lead to a part in the 1949 - 1954 television series "Man Against Crime."(aka "Follow that Man") He played as a quick-fisted but otherwise well-liked detective Mike Barnett. The show was the first live weekly half-hour dramatic show on network television, and he won an Academy of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences Award for his performance on it. In 1956 (28.Dec) he had a role in the TV-series Dick Powell's "Zane Grey Theatre" episode "Stars over Texas".
In 1958, he would play FDR in Dore Schary's Broadway play "Sunrise at Campobello" -- here Bellamy built his reputation as an actor by portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By delving into the history of FDR the man and the politician, he came to an understanding of the personality and psyche of the character. He then spent weeks at a rehabilitation center learning how to manage braces, crutches, and a wheelchair, so that his portrayal of FDR, after he was stricken with polio, would be realistic and accurate. In preparing for the original part, he would consult at length with Eleanor Roosevelt and her children. He called "Sunrise at Campobello" the "highlight of my professional career." It can be said that character acting was defined and perfected by Ralph Bellamy. He won the Tony and New York's Critics Circle Award as best actor in Sunrise at Campobello and starred in the subsequent film version in 1960. He would play FDR once again in the miniseries "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" (1988-89).
He played as a regular in many major television series including The Eleventh Hour (1963-1964), The Survivors (1969), The Mostly Deadly Game (1970), and Hunter (1976). He returned true to his roles as detective, villain, and other man in each of these series. It was in 1969 that Bellamy made a radical character shift by playing a diabolist in Rosemary's Baby. His autobiography, "When the Smoke Hit the Fan," was published in 1979. Director John Landis gave Bellamy's film career a big boost by casting him in Trading Places (1983), as a ruthless Wall Street manipulator and brother to Don Ameche. He received an honorary Oscar in 1986. We come to see him in several movies e.g. Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), and Coming to America (1988, a cameo) and of course a benevolent shipping magnate in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman
Bellamy was also one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild and a four-term president of Actors' Equity (between 1952 and 1964). Best remembered by his fellow actors as a champion of actors' rights. He doubled the equity's assets within six years and established the first actors' pension fund. Bellamy guided the Actors' Equity through the political blacklisting of the McCarthy era by forming a panel that established ground rules to protect members against unproved charges of Communist Party membership or sympathy. He also actively lobbied for the repeal of theatre admission taxes and for income averaging in computing taxes for performers.
Bellamy died at St. John's Hospital and
Health Center in Los Angeles of a lung ailment at the age of 87 at 2:18 a.m.
He had been hospitalized earlier in the month for his long-standing lung
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Last updated May 24, 2016
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