Ruta Lee remembers slipping onto the set of Brigadoon to watch stars Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse rehearse. “Working at MGM was wonderful,” Ruta, who was just 19 when she filmed the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on the stage next door, tells Closer Weekly, on newsstands now. “They were big stars, and I would go over and watch. Van and Gene eventually became friends of mine.”
That’s hardly a surprise. Though she never became a name-above-the-title movie star, Ruta, 86, has been a very successful working actress whose career has spanned film, theater and television for more than six decades. The ultimate Hollywood insider, her costars and friends have included everyone from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Lucille Ball and Debbie Reynolds.
“I am so blessed that I have [been able] to make friends all around the world,” says the performer, who shares her candid and delightfully gossipy tales in a new memoir, Consider Your Ass Kissed! “I hoped that it would be something where my voice was loud and clear,” she says of the book. “Like we were sitting down, having a drink and talking.”
You have some amazing stories! How long did it take you to write the book?
It’s been eight years. I am thrilled to death. I really wanted to do a book and give it full shrift.
Well, you do! One of the most memorable stories is how Frank Sinatra, your costar in Sergeants 3, attempted to seduce you by, um, exposing himself!
He had a style about him that was quite wonderful, [but] he had a dark side, too, and I experienced that. It hurt deeply. Maybe I should have had an affair with him — what the hell? But I was such a Goody Two-shoes back then and, frankly, scared.
Was he upset you turned him down?
It was like it never happened. It was just so ordinary for him that I had to make it very ordinary for me, too. [But now] I have nothing but words of gratitude, of love and of tremendous appreciation for the good things he did for me in my career and life.
Did you always want to be an actress?
I always loved performing. And my mother told me that I was always a very loquacious child. I would visit with everybody on the street. So entertainment was absolutely geared for me. I think I came out of my mother’s womb singing and dancing.
What do you think of as your big break?
I don’t think I’ve had it yet! I still think I have somewhere else to go. Years ago, someone said, ‘Ruta, you are going to become a very big star later in life.’ Well, how much later can I get? I’m 86, but I still feel like 26. But I guess my breaks were doing Burns and Allen, Seven Brides, of course, and Witness for the Prosecution.
These were all lovely breaks, and they gave me openings for a career that has lasted some 60-odd years. I’ve always managed to make a living at it.
One of your closest friends was Debbie Reynolds. What was she like on a personal level?
She loved to laugh. She also loved a sip of wine — or 10! She would never drink when she was performing, but when she was finished, the bottle of wine [would come out]. We loved to sip our wine and laugh about everything. She was truly one of the most generous people I have ever known. She would give you the shirt off her back if that’s what you needed.
Lucille Ball also became a friend of yours.
Everybody thinks that Lucy was totally wacky, but she wasn’t. She was very thoughtful, wonderful and loved to laugh. She loved to play games and absolutely adored charades.
In the 1970s, you cohosted High Rollers with Alex Trebek. Is that how you became friends?
Well, first of all, we’re both Canadian-born, so we became best friends the minute we shook hands. He had an extraordinary sense of humor and could do all kinds of accents to perfection. He loved telling stories with weird accents. You’d sometimes see that twinkle in his eye on Jeopardy!, but he never [revealed] the full blast of his humor on the show.
Who in Hollywood didn’t match your expectations?
Well, Marlene Dietrich was not warm and effusive. She was lovely, but she was an ice queen. And I was terrified of spending any time with Bette Davis, but she turned out to be fabulous! Lauren Bacall was a disappointment, but when I read her book, I realized that her life had not been easy.
What are you proudest of in your life?
My work on behalf of the Thalians, which is a Hollywood nonprofit focused on mental health. It was built by people in our industry. Right now, our focus is geared on the mental health of our returning veterans. I hope people will continue to appreciate the work we do and visit thalians.org and support us. We are in deep doo-doo because we haven’t been able to do fundraiser events over the past year.
We were so sorry to learn that your husband Webb passed in 2020. How are you coping?
When he died, all I could do is look back with a smile. I had 46 glorious years without a fight. He was a gentle, loving soul with a wonderful heart. He had dementia, and every few months I’d see him slipping away more.
Do you have any advice for anyone going through something similar?
All I can say is that you really have to pray hard and call on all those great reserves of love to help you through. [People with dementia] don’t know what they’re doing to you. And things can tear you apart if you let them. My good wishes and prayers are with everybody who has to deal with this kind of infirmity with a loved one.
What’s been the biggest challenge of getting older in Hollywood?
The hardest part is not the growing old, it’s the lack of jobs for older ladies. I don’t want to play a funny little wizened old lady — I don’t look like one, and I don’t plan on being one! I can still do some musicals on stage. And now I can add author [to my credits]. I’m going to get busy and write my second book!
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.
— Reporting by Amanda Champagne-Meadows