By Nick Thomas ~
Ruta Lee never aspired to be a diva. Acting nonstop in film, TV, and theater since the early 1950s, she tackled projects with complete professionalism.
“There was no time to throw fits because you had to work quickly as you rapidly went from job to job,” Lee said from her home in Los Angeles.
Off-screen tasks were also approached with her trademark zeal. In 1964, she called the office of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to secure the release of her 90-year-old Lithuanian grandmother, held since World War II in a Siberian internment camp.
A decade earlier, Lee approached her first film role as one of the brides in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” with similar resolve.
“During the dance audition, the producers and director asked me to show them something folksy,” she said. “Because of my Lithuanian descent, I danced up a storm with a polka and got the role.”
She was paired with gifted dance partner Matt Mattox in the beloved MGM musical and remembered one rehearsal.
“He lifted me high off a bench, and I sprained my ankle when I landed,” she said. “So I learned most of the choreography from a sitting position but still managed to do most of the dancing in the big barn-raising number.”
Many stories from the actress’s career and life can be found in her autobiography, “Consider Your Ass Kissed.” The title reflects the genuine gratitude she feels for the people with whom she worked. She also celebrates her 86th birthday on May 30.
A quick study, Lee learned a valuable early lesson in on-set protocol when she boogied her way into one of her first TV roles: a 1953 episode of “The Adventures of Superman.”
“It was a short dance scene in a café, and I decided to rehearse during lunch hour,” she said. “But when I plugged in the record player, someone grabbed me and said, ‘You can’t do that, you don’t belong to the electricians’ union!’”
Lee went on to make hundreds of appearances on TV, in series as well as game shows such as “Hollywood Squares” and “High Rollers” (as Alex Trebek’s dice roller). But westerns were a favorite (see www.rutalee.com). And, while many cowboys chased her, only one came close to catching her off-screen.
“Most of the dating I did was for publicity purposes and never had any real romances with actors except Eric Fleming from ‘Rawhide,’” Lee said. “What a darling man, but the most he got was a goodnight kiss!”
Amidst her rising career, Lee met Texas restaurant executive Webster B. Lowe, Jr., and the couple soon married. They were together for 46 years, until his death in 2020.
Lee has been a tireless voice for charitable organizations such as the Thalians, raising millions of dollars through her leadership role to support people with mental health problems, including returning veterans.
And then there was that phone call to Khrushchev’s office to free her grandmother.
“Within 48 hours we were flying over to bring her back to America,” Lee said. “So I’ve had an interesting life and I’m always involved with something. It’s been a long, wonderful, and fruitful career.”