Kathleen Freeman, character actress who appeared in at least five episodes of The Lucy Show, passed away August 23, 2001. She was 78. Freeman, whose picture was once featured on the cover of a book entitled, “Who is That?” was indeed one of a legion of character players who were immediately recognized more by their faces than their names. Freeman was once approached by a fan, who said to her, “I do not know who you are or what you did, but you were wonderful!” Freeman roared — and hoped someday to use that line as a title of her memories.
Freeman often played belligerent landladies, beleaguered nurses, nosy neighbors, loudmouthed battle-axes and maids — lots of maids. Indeed, in The Lucy Show, she played a harried head nurse in “Lucy Plays Florence Nightingale;” a disgruntled cook in “Lucy and Viv Open a Restaurant;” one of Lucy’s competitive girlfriends in “Lucy Takes a Job at the Bank” and “Lucy Enters a Baking Contest;” and a (guess what?) in “Lucy Gets Her Maid.”
She capped her long career in movies, theatre, and television with a recent Tony nomination for her role as the piano player in Broadway’s musical version of “The Full Monty.” She gave her final performance in “Monty” on August 18, 2003 — five days before succumbing to lung cancer.
“She was the perfect definition of the consummate pro, and she played the last year of her life to full houses and standing ovations,” said Jack O’Brien, director of “The Full Monty.” “It seems like an appropriate curtain.”
Amazingly, “The Full Monty” marked Freeman’s debut in a Broadway musical. She appeared on Broadway once previously — playing Madame Spritzer in the 1978 Circle in the Square production of the non-musical Feydeau farce, “13 Rue de L’Amour,” starring Louis Jourdan.
Known for her versatility and comedic flair, Freeman worked steadily in Hollywood, beginning in 1948 when she played a bit part as a girl on a subway in The Naked City. Her only line was, “Didja read about the bathtub murder?”
In the classic musical, Singing in the Rain, she played the frustrated vocal coach who attempts to get the speech-challenged movie star played by Jean Hagen to properly enunciate the phrase, “I cahhhn’t staaand him.” Freeman recently told a reporter,”I’m very proud of the fact that, after getting the role — which was a coup — that I got to make a little set of additions. I said that vocal coaches had certain routines. I added the whole thing: ‘Tah-tay-tee-toe-too…'”
Also on Freeman’s long list of movie credits are The Fly, with Vincent Price; The Rounders, with Henry Fonda; North to Alaska, with John Wayne, and The Far Country, with James Stewart — not to mention The Blues Brothers 2000 in which she played the imperious Sister Mary Stigmata. She did everything from classics — like A Place in the Sun — to camp: Myra Breckenridge.
Freeman was also a favorite comedic foil for Jerry Lewis, who cast her in eleven of his films, including The Ladies’ Man, The Nutty Professor, and The Disorderly Orderly.
Freeman’s work in television is a virtual history of the medium, from Topper in the 1950s and The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s to Murphy Brown and Married… with Children in the 1990s. She most recently appeared in such hits as Providence and Becker.
And though she was equally adept at drama on stage and in front of the camera, comedy was her forte. “This will sound very corny and I’m sorry,” Freeman told the Associated Press last year, “but I have always had the sense I was put here to do this: I am somebody who is around to help the world laugh. I have always had that sense. Corny but absolutely true.”
The daughter of vaudevillians, Freeman was born in Chicago in 1923. She joined the family act at age two, doing a little dance, and grew up on the road. Freeman majored in music at UCLA and planned to be a concert pianist. But then, as she recalled last year, “A terrible thing happened. I just got in a play and got a laugh. I just said a line and ‘boom.'”
She worked with a number of local theater groups in the 1940s, including the Circle Players in Hollywood, where she worked under the direction of such greats as Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton and Robert Morley.
“She was such a fine actress and comedian, and you couldn’t miss that talent,” said actress-director Peggy Webber, who saw Freeman on stage at the Circle Theatre in 1948 and hired her for her first job on television, in Webber’s live local series, Treasures of Literature.
Over the last 13 years, Freeman was a fixture in the cast of the California Artists Radio Theatre, which records live performances of classic books and plays for National Public Radio. She appeared in more than 50 of the group’s productions, including works by Shakespeare and Shaw, and played opposite actors such as Roddy McDowall, Samantha Eggar and David Warner.
“She was the most buoyant, hopeful, joyous member of our company,” said Webber, the executive director.
For many years, Freeman ran an acting workshop in Studio City, where she trained young actors for theater, television, and film, and held industry showcases for her students.
Webber said Freeman, who learned she had cancer three months into the run of The Full Monty, returned home in July while on a two-week break to present a showcase of her students’ work. “She was so dedicated to her students,” Webber said, “Even though she was ill at the time, she went ahead and kept her promise.”