Ruta Lee: Lithuanian-American Queen of the West

By Henry C. Parke

Whether you’re a fan of television crime dramas, thrillers, comedies, or Westerns, from the 1950s on, you couldn’t miss stunning, vivacious Ruta Lee. Those sparkling eyes reveal such a crafty intelligence—she might be helping Col. Hogan pull the wool over Col. Klink’s eyes; tricking Barney Fife into helping frame Sheriff Andy Taylor; or playing a spoiled chorine with a rich, elderly husband on Twilight Zone. But Lee, author of the delightful Hollywood memoir, Consider Your Ass Kissed, has particularly made her mark on the Western, big-screen and small, a genre which, unlike many actresses, she loves.

Ruta Lee“Westerns really were such a glorious addition and building to my life and career. I loved the westerns. I didn’t like having to get up at four to make it to the studio by five so that you could be out on location at six. But that chuck wagon would be at the location already. And you learned from the cowboys what to eat: a bacon-and-egg-and-sausage-and-onion-and-tomato sandwich for breakfast. Boy, was that good! I can smell it now.”

The antithesis of the “dumb blonde,” this all-American beauty sprung from Lithuanian roots. “My father’s family had a tiny plot of land and three brothers, and it would have to be cut up at their father’s death. It was like, we’re working so hard for nothing. Obviously, America was the place to be, but the quotas to get in, in ’28, ’29 were closed to Lithuanians. So, my father says, what’s the next best thing, but Canada, next door.”

Ruta was born in Montreal in 1935. “My mother took the advice of my teacher who said, ‘Your daughter is different from the kids in my kindergarten. You should give her music and dance lessons.’ My mom thought that I was Lithuania’s answer to Shirley Temple.” When they were permitted to emigrate to the United States, “My mother got us to Hollywood.”

In her late teens, and still Ruta Kilmonis, she got her big break, cast as one of the “Sobbin’ Women” kidnapped by a family of loggers in the best of all Western musicals, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. “It was my first movie job and still my favorite. It was six grueling, but wonderful, weeks of rehearsal for the dance numbers, I thought they were just extraordinary. You had these big stars of ballet and movie dance, all doing this ‘butch’ stuff, swinging axes, and doing cartwheels.” It’s hard to believe that film is nearly 70 years old. “Julie Newmar and I are still very much alive, and of the boys, Rusty Tamblyn is alive, but I think everybody else is gone.”

By 1957, Ruta was busy in TV Westerns. On Wagon Train she was married to Robert Fuller. “We dated several times, not as boyfriend girlfriend, but studio set-up dates, but became very good buddies in the process. We meet up every once in a while, at Western get togethers.”

On one episode of Rawhide she was married to Clint Eastwood, and they’ve been friends ever since, “but the son-of-a-gun has not used me in one of his movies yet. I better send him a note saying quick, before I die.”

There were a pair of fine Gunsmokes, one of which she barely survived. She’s trying to entrap Marshal Dillon, “I was playing this wicked little girl, and she’s such fun!” She tries to trick Marshal Dillon into a compromising position, “and he comes over to the bed, and we think he’s going to get in. Then he takes a quilt, and he throws it over my head, throws me over his shoulder,” but when he swings a curtain aside, to exit, “he swings his body around slams my head against the door frame and out I go. And it was interesting to come to, on the floor, with Jim Arness over me, tears coming down his cheeks, saying, ‘Oh my God. I thought I killed you! I’m so sorry!’ What a nice way to wake up!”

Casting happens in unexpected ways. One night, Ruta was with friends at the famous Hollywood nightclub Mocambo, “And let’s face it, nobody ever was or ever will be as mesmerizing as Frank Sinatra, who was live on stage. I sat there googling and awing and eeing.” After the show, a man asked to be introduced to Miss Lee. “I am Arthur Hornblow Jr. I’m the producer of a film called Witness for the Prosecution, and I’ve just given you a very unique screen test. Miss Lee, I’ve watched you watch Frank Sinatra, and I think you would be a very loving love-interest for Tyrone Power. Would you come in and meet Billy Wilder tomorrow?”

Fast-forward a few years and Frank Sinatra is screening a movie for his guests, including his producing partner Howard Koch, after a dinner party, and the movie is Witness for the Prosecution. “Sinatra says, ‘I’ve been watching this Ruta Lee broad for a lot of years on television now, and she’s pretty cute. What do you say we put her in one of our upcoming pictures?’ And Howard said, ‘She’s one of my favorites. Yes, absolutely.’ That’s how I got to be leading lady in Sergeants Three.”

Sergeants Three was a Western remake of Kipling’s Gunga Din. “I had Joan Fontaine’s role, Sammy Davis had Sam Jaffe’s role, he played Gunga Din. Of course, we had Frank and Dean and Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop and the Crosby boys. I never had so much fun in my life.”

Ruta Lee in The Virginian

Not quite so much fun was experienced by director John Sturges. “He exhibited the patience of Job because you’ve got to understand this group never stopped laughing. And Frank had the reputation of being one-take Sinatra. He would say, ‘Take all the time you need to set up the shot, but I don’t want to hear that the dolly-wheel went flat, a board creaked, a light went out. I’m going to give you one take and that’s it.’”

Her next feature Western was The Gun Hawk. “I was thrilled to death to be working with Rory Calhoun. In Montreal, you had to be 16 to see a movie, because there had been a terrible theatre fire and children had been trampled. I was all of 10 and my mother would dress me up in her fur coat, put lipstick on me, a babushka on my head, and she’d sneak me into the movies. I got to see some movie with Rory Calhoun, and thought he was the most beautiful creature that I’d ever seen.”

Ruta’s final Western, so far, is Bullet for a Badman, “Audie Murphy was the good guy, Darren McGavin was the bad guy. I got shot with a bullet in my forehead somewhere in the movie. And my little grandmother, that I had brought over from Lithuania, had never seen television or the movies. She went screaming to my mother that I had been shot and having hysterics.”

In addition to her acting career, Ruta Lee has spent over fifty years co-running one of Hollywood’s most successful and respected philanthropic organizations, The Thalians, with Debbie Reynolds. “The Thalians is Hollywood for Mental Health,” she explains. They’ve raised millions over the years with their famous annual Mr. Wonderful Gala. Focusing on our returning military, “We have joined UCLA and Operation Mend, [which] heals the broken and fractured bodies, mind, and spirit of the beautiful young people that we send into harm’s way.”

Looking back on her Western career, “I am forever grateful, not just to the stars, and the directors and producers that hired me, but to the guys that wrangled the horses, and taught me how to handle guns, to respect them, taught me how to get on and off a horse. And above all taught me to be grateful for every good thing that came my way. Sometimes the extras had been big stars in silents, and in the very early talkies. I had such respect for those people. And I just hope that everybody in the industry that is up and coming doesn’t get so snotty that they don’t pay attention to who came before, who brought them to where they are, and respect those people. You don’t have to love them but respect them.”

Ruta Lee and Henry Parke
Henry C. Parke with Ruta Lee at Ms. Lee’s book signing, December 2021.

About Henry C. Parke

Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based screenwriter and wanna-be cowboy Henry C. Parke has been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the on-line report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti and domestic Westerns, and he’s got a saddle-bag full of Western scripts.

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