Tall, handsome and charming, Ralph Bellamy had all the characteristics of the typical Hollywood leading man, yet he found himself making a career out of supporting roles. He had a rare turn in the title role when he took on the redoubtable Ellery Queen in a series of B movies in the early 40’s. But his greatest acclaim, in fact his greatest supporting role of all, would come about off screen as he became a public voice for his fellow actors.
Born in Chicago in 1904, he began his career right out of high school, joining a traveling Shakespearean company in 1922. He worked in several stock companies over the next couple of years and eventually opened his own in 1927. By 1929 he had reached Broadway, where he made his debut in Town Boy. Two years later, he ventured to Hollywood and nabbed his first part in the gangster film The Secret Six.
Despite his good looks and charming manner, he found himself consistently cast as the second lead, always losing the girl to the leading man.
In 1933 he made his first venture into the realm of whodunits, starring as Inspector Trent in Before Midnight. He had a rare leading role in The Man Who Lived Twice (1936) and even ventured into westerns the same year with Wild Brian Kent.
After four Inspector Trent films, he was cast as super sleuth Ellery Queen, the popular hero of a series of mystery novels by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, in Ellery Queen: Master Detective (1940). Over the next two years, he would make four more Ellery Queen movies, including Ellery Queen’s Penthouse Mystery (1941) and Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942).
While the Ellery Queen films failed to generate the same success as the books, Bellamy managed to garner some attention for another supporting role, picking up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role opposite Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937).
Aside from the Ellery Queen films, he had roles in several films during the early 40’s including The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Stage Door Canteen (1943). By the middle of the decade, he began to move away from the movies and concentrated instead on stage and TV, where he became a frequent performer on everything from The Eleventh Hour and The Survivors to The Most Deadly Game.
On stage, he gained prominence with his striking portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. He threw himself into the role, even spending time at veteran’s hospitals and learning to handle crutches, braces and a wheelchair to make his performance that much more believable. The effort worked as he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in 1958. In 1960, he reprised the role in the film adaptation of Sunrise At Campobello, opposite Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt.
While struggling to find his niche professionally, Bellamy stood up for his fellow actors during the height of McCarthyism. He was a founder of the Screen Actors Guild and served four terms as president of Actors’ Equity, championing the cause of blacklisted actors. As actors were driven from the screen by McCarthy’s scare tactics, Bellamy found them homes on stage, salvaging the careers of many. He also sought to protect their futures, establishing the first pension fund for actors under the auspices of Actor’s Equity.
By the 1960’s and 70’s, Bellamy had established himself as a go-to guest performer on countless TV shows. His was one of those faces that everyone recognized even if they couldn’t place the name. He appeared sporadically on film, including a chilling role as a less than friendly doctor in the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
An aging yet reliable character actor as he entered his 70’s, he was tapped by director John Landis for a role in Trading Places (1983), as Don Ameche’s brother. The appearance gave his career a boost and he followed it with turns in the comedies Oh, God! (1987) and Coming to America (1983).
In 1987, he was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Academy Award, in recognition of his work for the Screen Actors Guild and Actor’s Equity. Though in his late 80’s by this time, he continued to make cameo appearances in films such as Disorderlies (1987) and The Good Mother (1988). In 1990, he made his final film appearance opposite Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. He died at his California home the following year, at the age of 87.
Though he failed to make his mark in the movies as a leading man, Ralph Bellamy left behind a rich legacy that includes not only over 100 film and stage appearances but a lifetime of service on behalf of his fellow actors. Never was the term supporting actor more appropriately used, and in his case it was no slight. To those whose lives he touched, as a screen idol and a colleague, he played second fiddle to no-one.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.