MOUNT AIRY, N.C. (WGHP) – Maybe you saw the announcement Tuesday that actor Ruta Lee would be attending her first “Mayberry Days” festival later when summer turns to fall in Mount Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith.
The Andy Griffith Museum posted the news on its Facebook page that it was bringing back another actor who had appeared in multiple episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” That’s a prospect that has become increasingly difficult.
With the death last year of Betty Lynn, the iconic “Thelma Lou” from the show, only Ron Howard, who played Opie, remains among the principal characters. In recurring roles, there also is Howard’s real-life brother Clint, who occasionally played Leon, and some of the Darling Family. But familiar faces from the screen are difficult to find.
The post by the museum noted that Lee, who in May turned 87, appeared twice on the show as two different characters: reporter Jean Boswell in “Andy on Trial” in 1962 and then as actor Darlene Mason in “The Hollywood Party” (1965).
She also had an appearance on the spinoffs “Mayberry RFD,” playing “Terry” in “The City Planner” episode in 1971, and “Gomer Pyle USMC,” in which Lee was a fur-wearing beauty in “Gomer Dates a Movie Star” in 1965.
The museum said this is Lee’s first appearance at Mayberry Days, which this year celebrates the history of “The Andy Griffith Show” on Sept. 20-25 in his hometown. The festival began in 1990 and includes concerts, a golf tournament, performances and a parade, among other events.
Who was Ruta Lee?
Well, for one thing, Ruta Lee is not really her name (surprised, are you?). She was born Ruta Mary Kilmonis in Montreal, Canada, on May 30, 1935, but she is strictly Hollywood. Her mother wanted her to be an actor and uprooted to family to move there (surprised again?). Kilmonis graduated from Hollywood High School (Class of 1954) and attended Los Angeles City College and UCLA. She was married to the same man for 44 years and serves as chair of The Thalians, which helps mental health patients at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA. IMBD.com credits her with 158 acting credits in 25 movies and more than 2,000 TV roles. Her first acting credit was on “The Roy Rogers Show” in November 1952 under her real name, Ruta Kilmonis, and she later appeared in “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” under that name, too. It’s unclear when she adopted “Lee.”
She never was nominated for any major award, but in 2006 she got the ultimate Hollywood tribute: her own star on the Walk of Fame.” That star was in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where as a teenager she was fired for poor performance as a ticket-seller. She talks about that in her memoir she published in 2021 under the sexy title “Consider Your Ass Kissed.” The book apparently does include a lot of kissing and telling.
What was her most famous role?
That’s always a good question, and Ruta Lee’s career – though long and busy – was more about volume than stardom. Her first movie role was in 1954 in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” in which she played Ruth Jepson. She appeared in the acclaimed 1957 drama “Witness For the Prosecution,” with Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, and in “Marjorie Morningstar,” starring Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood. And in 1962, she appeared in “Sergeants 3,” starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (which in her book she claims almost led to a romance with Sinatra). In 1972 she starred with Bobby Van in “Doomsday Machine.” She also performed in touring Broadway shows. But for almost all of her nearly-70-year career, she was about television. She played all sorts of roles – few of them recurring – in all manner of series. She’s blonde and diminutive (5 feet 1, her bio says), and she was a dancer. She often played a sibling or girlfriend or a peripheral character, sometimes a sex symbol. Those TV roles included not only sitcoms but Westerns and police dramas. She had parts in soap operas, holiday movies, cartoons, variety shows and even on game shows. How many people have appeared with such icons as Roy Rogers, George Burns, Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Frank Sinatra, Tab Hunter, Walter Brennan and Robin Williams?
Were they big parts?
She appeared multiple times in some series, and she almost always played different characters, as she did with TAGS, as it’s called. The Flintstones, Disney movies, ensemble shows, cartoon voices, she was everywhere. She starred in a famous episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain,” with Patrick O’Neal. She was one of 39 people who have appeared in both “The Twilight Zone” and “The Wild Wild West.” She even played herself in a 1967 episode of “The Lucy Show” and again in her most recent appearance, in 2021’s “That’s Entertainment.” But except for a pair of 2-part episodes, in only three series did she play the same character in multiple episodes: “Coming of Age” (1988-89), “1st & Ten” (1984-85) and “Gunsmoke” (1958 and 1962).
What was her Jean Boswell character about?
This episode – and Lee’s character – were all about power and unethical activities. As in several other episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” – including the pilot episode that aired on “The Danny Thomas Show” – a person passing through Mayberry is stopped by law enforcement. In this case J. Howard Jackson, a media mogul from Raleigh, was let go by Sheriff Taylor on the agreement that Jackson would mail in his fine. He didn’t, and Andy went to his office to arrest him for failure to appear. JA disgruntled and offended Jackson sent Boswell (Lee), a college student reporter, to Mayberry to find dirt on Andy. Her “reporting” has people including Barney testifying against Andy in a mayor’s court hearing.
How did she play Darlene Mason?
Lee’s turn as Mason in a color episode – a different genre for fans of “The Andy Griffith Show” – from 1965 is basically Lee playing herself, a beautiful and glamorous movie star. Mason is cast in “The Sheriff Without A Gun,” the movie Hollywood decided to make about Sheriff Andy Taylor after a magazine article about him spotlighted his unholstered work. This episode also is a first take on what will be a recurring theme. While visiting Hollywood during the movie’s filming, Andy and Mason are photographed at a party. Helen Crump, Andy’s girlfriend, who is on the trip, too – with Aunt Bea and Opie – sees the photos and becomes jealous until Andy smooths it over. That exact plot line happened again two seasons later in “Andy’s Trip to Raleigh,” when attorney Lee Drake (played by Whitney Blake of “Hazel” fame) and Andy worked on depositions by her pool. His sunburn from their innocent afternoon drew questions that left Helen red-faced.