ZaSu Pitts (Template:PronEng; January 3, 1894– June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, although later, her career digressed to comedy sound films. She overcame her looks and voice, which had served her in silent films to play dramatic roles, using them to craft her persona in talkie comedies.
ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nellie (Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.
The names of her mother's sisters Eliza and Susan became the basis for ZaSu's unique first name, which has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts or Zasu Pitts in many film credits and articles. Though the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæzuː/ ZA-zoo, /ˈzeɪsuː/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzeɪzuː/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" (/ˈseɪzuː/), recounting that Mary Pickford predicted , "[M]any will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right [she] was...."
In 1903, when she was nine years old, the family moved to Santa Cruz, California, seeking a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.
Pitts made her stage debut in 1915 and was discovered two years later for films by pioneer screenwriter Frances Marion. Pitts made her debut in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Mary Pickford. Pitts became a leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece, Greed (1924); based on this performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". Von Stroheim also featured her in his films Sins of the Fathers (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello, Sister! (1933). She earned praise in all those films.
Pitts grew in popularity following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she met and married actor Tom Gallery. The couple paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). Their daughter, Ann, was born in 1922.
In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's epic classic, Greed (1924), a nine-hour-plus picture, edited to under two hours. The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. The movie has gained respect over time, having failed initially at the box office due to its extensive cutting.
Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She also played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach shorts and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville.
Switching between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite the intensity of her acting. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in The Dummy (1929), Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).
In the 1940s, she also found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading quivery banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series, replacing Edna May Oliver, was not successful, however.
In 1944 Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on TV.
This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah), as Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. Her last role was as a switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and, one day past six months after the filming of the last scene, she became that movie's second cast member to die.
- Tom Gallery (July 23, 1920 – May 2, 1933; divorced); two children: Ann Gallery (natural) and Don Gallery (born Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 drug-related death of his mother and Pitts' good friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr.
- John E. Woodall (October 8, 1933 – June 7, 1963) (her death).
Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end – making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, besides It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
- ZaSu Pitts was an excellent cook and collector of candy recipes, which culminated in a cookbook titled Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, published posthumously in 1963.
- Mae Questel caricatured Pitts's voice and "oh, dear" mannerisms for the character Olive Oyl for the Fleischer Studios animated cartoon version of Popeye the Sailor.
- ZaSu Pitts has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
- In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.
- During the 1980s, a large R&B/Soul band based in San Francisco performed under the name "The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra"
- She was referenced by the comedic trio Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker in the 1982 police spoof comedy series Police Squad!. In one scene of the episode "A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)" (which first aired on March 4, 1982), lead character Frank Drebin exposes a suspect's secret identity by reciting that she was formerly "a brunette hitman known as Zasu Pitts".
- A street in Las Vegas, Nevada is named after her.
|1917||The Little Princess||Becky|
|1918||How Could You Jean?||Oscar's Sweetheart|
|1918||The Talk of the Town|
|1919||Better Times||Nancy Scroggs|
|1919||The Other Half||Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid|
|1919||Poor Relations||Daisy Perkins|
|1920||Seeing It Through||Betty Lawrence|
|1922||Youth to Youth||Emily|
|1923||Souls for Sale||Herself||Cameo role|
|1923||Three Wise Fools||Mickey|
|1924||Daughters of Today||Lorena|
|1924||Triumph||A Factory Girl|
|1925||The Great Divide||Polly Jordan|
|1925||Pretty Ladies||Maggie Keenan|
|1925||The Great Love||Nancy|
|1926||Monte Carlo||Hope Durant|
|1926||Sunny Side Up||Evelyn|
|1927||Casey at the Bat||Camille|
|1928||The Wedding March||Cecelia Schweisser|
|1929||The Locked Door||Telephone Girl|
|1929||This Thing Called Love||Clara Bertrand|
|1930||No, No, Nanette||Pauline Hastings|
|1930||The Devil's Holiday||Ethel|
|1931||The Bad Sister||Minnie|
|1931||Penrod and Sam||Mrs. Bassett||Alternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam|
|1931||The Guardsman||Liesl, the Maid|
|1931||On the Loose||Zasu||Short subject|
|1932||Broken Lullaby||Anna, Holderlin's Maid|
|1932||Destry Rides Again||Temperance Worker||Alternative title: Justice Rides Again|
|1932||Westward Passage||Mrs. Truesdale|
|1932||Back Street||Mrs. Dole|
|1932||Blondie of the Follies||Gertie|
|1932||The Crooked Circle||Nora Rafferty|
|1933||They Just Had to Get Married||Molly Hull|
|1933||Meet the Baron||Zasu|
|1933||Mr. Skitch||Maddie Skitch|
|1934||Dames||Matilda Ounce Hemingway|
|1934||Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch||Miss Hazy|
|1934||The Gay Bride||Mirabelle|
|1935||Ruggles of Red Gap||Prunella Judson|
|1936||Thirteen Hours by Air||Miss Harkins|
|1937||Forty Naughty Girls||Hildegarde Withers|
|1939||The Lady's from Kentucky||Dulcey Lee|
|1939||Eternally Yours||Mrs. Bingham|
|1940||It All Came True||Miss Flint|
|1940||No, No Nanette||Pauline Hastings|
|1941||Niagara Falls||Emmy Sawyer|
|1942||The Bashful Bachelor||Geraldine|
|1942||So's Your Aunt Emma||Aunt Emma||Alternative title: Meet the Mob|
|1943||Let's Face It!||Cornelia Figeson|
|1946||Breakfast in Hollywood||Elvira Spriggens|
|1947||Life with Father||Cousin Cora Cartwright|
|1950||Francis||Nurse Valerie Humpert|
|1952||Denver and Rio Grande||Jane Dwyer|
|1954||Francis Joins the WACS||Lt. Valerie Humpert|
|1957||This Could Be the Night||Mrs. Katie Shea|
|1961||The Teenage Millionaire||Aunt Theodora|
|1963||The Thrill of It All||Olivia|
|1963||It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World||Gertie–Switchboard Operator|
|1954||The Best of Broadway||Miss Preen||Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"|
|1956||The 20th Century Fox Hour||Miss Appleton||Episode: "Mr. Belvedere"|
|The Gale Storm Show||Elvira Nugent||91 episodes|
|1957||Private Secretary||Aunt Martha||Episode: "Not Quite Paradise"|
|1960||The Dennis O'Keefe Show||Loretta Kimball||Episode: "Dimples"|
|1961||Guestward, Ho!||Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"|
|1961||Perry Mason||Daphne Whilom||Episode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"|
|1963||Burke's Law||Mrs. Bowie||Episode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?"|
1933 zasu pitts played in the movie "Asleep in the Feet"
- ↑ Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts; Duell, Sloan and Pearce; 1963; p. 15
- ↑ Concerning Pitts' year of birth, about which the actress often dissembled, some sources cite 1894 (IMDB: Zasu Pitts, Find-a-Grave, Golden Silents, Who2, and InfoPlease), while other sources cite 1898 (Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, 12th edition, HarperCollins, 1997, ISBN 0002557983 and TCM:Biography) or even 1900 (Allmovie:Overview and New York Times obituary (June 8, 1963))
- ↑ "Rulandus Pitts biography on 76th NY Regiment site". Bpmlegal.com. Retrieved 2010-06-07.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Barbara Giffen. "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
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