January 18, 2005

R.I.P. Ruth Warrick

A great woman died at her home on January 15. Ruth Warrick gained fame for playing the wife of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, and in television for an amazing 35-year run on All My Children. Here is today's New York Times obituary.

When I taught my course in soap operas and daytime television at the University of Maryland, Ruth was the first star to come to the class. She was full of enthusiasm, not just about acting, but about the arts and politics. She became good friends with Jimmy Carter but especially his mother, Lillian, and told wonderful stories about her trips to Plains, Georgia. The students loved her, and Ruth thrived in their adoration.

When I think of that first visit with Ruth, two memories stand out. Although both Phoebe and Ruth wore too much makeup for my taste, she was a beautiful woman. Then in her mid-sixties, she had lovely, youthful skin. I asked her if she had a secret. She said that she did. She woke up early every morning and took a long, cold shower -- with zero hot water.

The morning before she appeared before my class, we were to appear on the morning show of the Washington D.C. ABC affiliate. I was to pick her up at her hotel and drive to the studio, but when I arrived at the hotel, Ruth said she was running behind schedule. I knew how bad the congestion was on Constitution Ave. but Ruth assured me that her makeup regimen superseded such mundane things as heavy traffic. The publicity appearance was a routine task for Ruth, but I was a nervous wreck. I had never been a guest on a TV talk-show before and Ruth didn't make my life easier.

When we arrived at the station, we saw that the live show had already started and we, the first guests, weren't even on the right floor yet. What impressed me about Ruth is that when we were in the car, and I was alternating between panicking over traffic and over whether I could utter an intelligible sentence on the air, Ruth was not only unruffled, but wanted to talk about politics and art and theater. The TV show, she insisted, would go fine. Why was I worrying?

Indeed. Ruth went on the air and charmed the pants off of the two co-hosts and the crew of the show, just as she later charmed my students. She was a larger than life character in real life, just as her Phoebe character on AMC was. As I met more of the actors on the show, I found out that Ruth was a mentor to the younger actresses on the show, especially to "Erica" (Susan Lucci) and "Brooke" (Julia Barr).

Ruth encountered many medical problems in her 80s. AMC fans were thrilled but saddened when Ruth appeared on the recent 35th anniversary show, albeit looking frail in a wheelchair and without lines. But I'm glad she did it. More than 25 years ago, Ruth told me the first day I met her that she hoped never to retire from acting, and that she hoped she could act until she dropped. Ruth endured.