, – June 7
, ) was an American film actress
who starred in many silent dramas
, although later, her career digressed to comedy sound films
. She overcame her unglamorous looks and wallflower tendencies by basing her stage and screen persona on them in scores of comedies.
Her unusual first name was coined from parts of the names, "Eliza," and, "Susan," female relatives who both wanted Pitts' mother to name the child after them. In many film credits and articles, her name was rendered as, Zazu Pitts
, or, Zasu Pitts
. Though her name is commonly mispronounced as, "Zazz-oo," in her 1930s film shorts with Thelma Todd
(see below) it is clearly pronounced, on-screen [by Todd] as, "ZAY-sue;" her name was also consistently pronounced, "ZAY-sue," during her recurrent guest appearances on, Fibber McGee and Molly
's show in 1939.
Born in Parsons
, to Rulandus and Nellie (Shay) Pitts, ZaSu 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. In 1903, when she was 9 years old, they moved to Santa Cruz
seeking a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where, despite her shy demeanor, 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 starring Mary Pickford. Pitts became a leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece, Greed (); based on this performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts, "the greatest dramatic actress." Von Stroheim also featured her in his films, The Wedding March and, Walking Down Broadway which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as, Hello Sister.
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 (). In 1920 she met and married potential matinée idol, Tom Gallery, and paired up with him in several films, including, Bright Eyes Heart of Twenty Patsy and, A Daughter of Luxury (). Their daughter, Ann, was born in 1922.
In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceur, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's epic classic, Greed 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. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series was not well received. By this time Pitts was established as a comedienne, and audiences didn't accept her as a brainy sleuth.
Trading between comedy shorts and features, Pitts earned praises in such heavy dramas as Sins of the Fathers The Wedding March (1928), also helmed by von Stroheim, and War Nurse (). By the advent of sound, which was an easy transition for her, she was fully secured in comedy. One bitter and huge disappointment was when she was replaced in the war classic All Quiet on the Western Front by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs. She decided, however, to make the most of the situation. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in such wonderful entertainment as, The Dummy Finn and Hattie The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies Sing and Like It and Ruggles of Red Gap (). She excelled in her comedy partnerships with comedienne Thelma Todd (in short films) and comedian Slim Summerville (in features).
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 tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn, in 1944. 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 but in the 1950s she started focusing on TV. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to cruiseline social director Gale Storm in The Gale Storm Show as Elvira Nugent ("Nugie") [a.k.a., Oh, Susannah], the shipboard beautician.
Pitts' last role, shortly before her death, was as a voice actress (switchboard operator) in the Stanley Kramer comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (). A street in Las Vegas, Nevada is named after her.
- John E. Woodall (8 October 1933 – 7 June 1963) (her death)
- Tom Gallery (23 July 1920 – 2 May 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.
Ill health dominated Pitts' later years after she was diagnosed with cancer
in the mid-1950s. She continued to work until the very end, making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All
with Doris Day
and James Garner
, and the all-star comedy epic, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
(1963). She died at age 69 in Hollywood, California
, leaving behind a gallery of scene-stealing worrywarts
for all to enjoy.
Pitts was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, in Culver City, California.
- She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
- Was an excellent cook and a collector of candy recipes, which culminated into a cookbook entitled Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts which was published posthumously in 1963.
- Mae Questel caricatured Pitts's voice for the character Olive Oyl for the Fleischer Studios animated cartoon version of the comic strip Popeye.
- From the 1940s through the early 1960s, Pitts also made numerous television appearances, including her role in Oh! Susanna (1956-1960), with Gale Storm. As Nugie, the shipboard beautician and partner-in-crime, she made the most of her timid, twitchy mannerisms.
- She was on radio, appearing several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show. Her character was a somewhat dipsy dame who was constantly looking for a husband.
- Referred to sadistic gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a "ferret".
- Conservative both politically and financially, she left her lucrative job with Thelma Todd over a money dispute with Hal Roach, and often complained about taxes.
- In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the Parsons Theatre to remember her by. It is placed at the entrance for movie-goers to see.
- During the 1980s, a large R&B/Soul band based in San Francisco performed under the name "The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra"
- ZaSu Pitts at the Internet Movie Database