ZaSu Pitts (/ˈseɪzuː ˈpɪts/; née Eliza Susan Pitts; January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramasand comedies, transitioning to comedy sound films.
Eliza Susan Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.
The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname "ZaSu", i.e. to satisfy competing family interests. She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæzuː/ zaz-oo or /ˈzeɪsuː/ zay-soo, or /ˈzeɪzuː/ zay-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈseɪzuː/, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted, "[M]any will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right [she] was." In 1903, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.
Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford. Years later, she was the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello, Sister! (1933).
Pitts' popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead inKing Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 9½ hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release—the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours—the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of thegreatest films ever made.
Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach shorts and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite her intense performance. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap(1935). In the 1940s, she found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withersmystery series, succeeding Edna May Oliver, was unsuccessful, however.
In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah) in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" on the ABC sitcom, Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, Pitts appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason, "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her last role was a switchboard operator in the madcap Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery, an actor, became a well-known Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children: Ann Gallery (born 1922) and Donald Michael "Sonny" Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 drug-related death of his mother and Pitts' friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr. In 1933, she married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.
Later years and death
Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end – making brief appearances inThe Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, and as a cameo switchboard operator in the sheriff's office in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, ZaSu Pitts has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
- In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.
In popular culture
- Mae Questel caricatured Pitts's voice and "oh, dear" mannerisms for the character Olive Oyl for the Fleischer Studios animated cartoon version of Popeye the Sailor.
- During the 1980s, a large R&B/Soul band based in San Francisco performed under the name "The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra"
- She was referenced by the comedic trio Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker in the 1982 police spoof comedy series Police Squad! episode "A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)", which aired originally on March 4, 1982. In this episode, lead character Frank Drebin exposes a suspect's secret identity by reciting that she was formerly "a brunette hitman known as Zasu Pitts".
- Pitts is mentioned in the play and movie version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. The main character, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), orders his nurse to "Stop acting like ZaSu Pitts and explain yourself!"
- In a 1954 live TV staging of The Man Who Came to Dinner, in which Monty Woolley reprised the role of Sheridan Whiteside, Pitts was cast as the nurse, Miss Preen, so the comment, "stop acting like ZaSu Pitts", was actually made to Pitts herself.