The American comedian and actress Irene Ryan was born on 17th October 1902, in El Paso, Texas, USA, and passed away on 26th April, 1973 in Santa Monica, California. Despite being best-known for her portrayal of Daisy May “Granny Moses” in “The Beverly Hillbillies” – and being nominated for two Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy Awards for the role – Irene was also successful on Broadway and radio, as well as in films and vaudeville.
Irene was the second child of the Irish emigrant Catherine J. McSharry and the army sergeant James Merritt Noblitt. She had one sister, Anna, who was 17 years older.
Irene’s performing career began when she was 11 years old and won $3 for her singing skills at an amateur contest in San Francisco’s Valencia Theater. By then, she was already acting in films; however, her first credited roles wouldn’t come along until 1935 and 1936, when she appeared in “One Big Happy Family”, “Just Plain Folks”, and other short movies.
Aged 20, she married the writer-comedian Tim Ryan. Known professionally as “Tim and Irene”, the couple performed in vaudeville as a double act, which is known as a “Dumb Dora” routine in showbusiness, and characterized by the performances of Gracie Allen and George Burns, in which Gracie played an illogical and dimwitted woman.
Between 1935 and 1937, Tim and Irene starred in eleven short comedies for Educational Pictures, with Irene playing a young woman who distracted Tim with her harebrained schemes and hilarious dialogues. In 1936, the couple briefly substituted Jack Benny in “The Jell-o Summer Show”.
After two decades of marriage, Tim and Irene divorced in 1942, although the actress kept his surname. She then toured with Bob Hope, and was on his radio program for two years, appeared in the country music movie “O, My Darling Clementine”, and played Edgar Kennedy’s wife in two of his short films.
By then, Tim was making a name for himself as a hardworking character actor. Monogram Pictures reunited the former couple in four feature films between 1943 and 1944, such as the musical movie “Hot Rhythm”, starring Dona Drake.
Irene remarried in 1946 – her second husband, Harold E. Knox, worked in film production; similarly to her marriage with Tim, they broke up after 15 years without having children.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Irene stayed in her comfort zone by playing nervous, fussy, and somewhat melodramatic women.
The actress’s first sitcom appearance was in a January 1955 episode of “The Danny Thomas Show”. She also had guest starring appearances in “The Real McCoys”, “Ichabod and Me”, and “My Three Sons”, as well as a small recurring role as Cynthia Boyle in “Bringing Up Buddy”.
Without a doubt, Irene’s most famous role is that of Daisy “Granny” Moses, Jed Clampett’s mother-in-law in “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Irene’s character was named in honor of Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who had died the previous year aged 101. Originally, Bea Benaderet was to be cast as Granny, but the executive producers were so impressed by Irene’s audition that they cast her almost on the spot. Bea was instead cast as Pearl Bodine, Jed’s cousin.
As for Irene’s stage and club career, in 1965 she signed a two-year contract to perform at Las Vegas’s Sahara Hotel. Seven years later, she had a starring role in Bob Fosse’s Broadway musical “Pippin”, singing the number “No Time at All”.
She starred in the orig. B’way prdctn. of PIPPIN. I read she suffered a stroke between two performances one day.
— Steven Voorhees (@StevenVoorhees) April 26, 2020
Although many feel that Irene was often overlooked as an actress, in 1973 she was nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award in the Best Supporting or Featured Actress category for her performance in “Pippin”. The awards ceremony was held a month before Irene’s death; she lost to Patricia Elliott for her performance in “A Little Night Music”.
Death & Legacy
On 10th March 1973, Irene suffered a stroke during a performance of “Pippin” and flew home to California on her doctor’s orders. She was then hospitalized and diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brain tumor. A month and a half later, the performer died at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica at the age of 70, the causes of death being arteriosclerotic heart disease and glioblastoma; she is now buried alongside her sister at the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery. It’s important to note that the actress was a lifelong heavy smoker, and that many of her colleagues were concerned for her health.
Although the “Beverly Hillbillies” star is no longer amongst us, Irene’s long-lasting legacy lives on in the form of the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, which is awarded by the Irene Ryan Foundation to select actors participating in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The scholarship aims to provide “recognition, honor, and financial assistance to outstanding student performers wishing to pursue further education”. The Foundation has been awarding said scholarships since 1972, when it was created.
Irene’s net worth at the time of her death was said to be over $1 million, adjusting for inflation. Her entire state was left to the Irene Ryan Foundation.
Despite the whereabouts of Irene’s second husband being a mystery, there’s plenty of available information regarding her first spouse, Tim Ryan. The film actor was born on 5th July 1899 in Bayonne, New Jersey, US, and passed away at the age of 57 in Los Angeles, California.
Tim and Irene’s divorce had almost no impact on their working relationship, as the pair appeared in many projects together after they were no longer husband and wife. In the 1940s, Tim joined Monogram Pictures as a screenwriter and actor; most of his roles saw him play detectives, policemen, and newspaper editors.
Tim’s whole filmography is almost impossible to find due to his many uncredited roles, and the sheer number of films he appeared in over the decades. With well over a hundred acting credits under his belt, the New Jersey native was just as prolific as Irene, if not more so. Some of the actors and actresses Tim worked with include Elyse Knox in “Forgotten Women”, Sterling Hayden in “The Asphalt Jungle”, and Peggy Ryan in “Shamrock Hill”.