Ruta Lee has worked with the best of Hollywood – and now she’s telling all.
The actress recently penned a memoir titled "Consider Your A—Kissed!" where she shared personal memories from over the years. She has worked with numerous stars, including Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Carson, Alex Trebek and Fred Astaire – just to name a few. The "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" actress also befriended many fellow leading ladies, including Lucille Ball, Julie Newmar and Debbie Reynolds, among others.
Lee spoke to Fox News about how her mother’s prayers may have led to a life-changing role, as well as what it was really like working with some of Hollywood's top stars.
Fox News: Many people remember you from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." How did you get the role?
Ruta Lee: It was my first job in the movies and what an auspicious first job! I got it simply by auditioning for it. I got a call from my agent, who I was very lucky to have because I was very young and very stupid. I didn’t know anything about anything in those days. I went in for the audition.
Meanwhile, my mother went to the church across the street, lit candles, got down on her knees and prayed. And I got the job! And it was quite the job. What a blessing. We shot it in Cinemascope, but not every theater in the world was equipped with Cinemascope back then. But everybody had widescreen. So we would do the take again for the widescreen. So depending on which version is running on television, they’re just a little different. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.
Fox News: You must have many, but what’s one of your favorite memories from your time on set?
Lee: I wouldn’t say this moment was a fun time but it was certainly memorable. On the first day, we were on the barn raising set, which is basically the focal point of the movie. It was a magnificent number that Michael Kidd choreographed for all of us. Our shoes for the dance number had not been rubberized yet. We were breaking in new shoes just to get them going.
I did this big kick forward. My shoes slipped and my head hit the floor. I went out like a light. All I heard was Michael Kidd say, "She’ll be all right. She just dropped a quarter down between the planks and she’s looking for it." All I could do was laugh and the most painful thing in the world is to have your head hurting and laugh.
But that’s just the kind of wonderful choreographer Michael Kidd was. He just made everything such a lark. And there I was with some of the best dancers in America. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself how I got to be in this fabulous position. And Michael made it so easy for us. We just laughed through all the weeks of shooting and rehearsals we did.
Fox News: What do you believe has been the secret behind the film’s lasting success?
Lee: First of all, the story is a wonderful one. There’s a gentleness, a sweetness to it. But there’s also this strength. The dancers, especially the guys, were the strongest I’ve ever seen. And we just had a great time laughing on set doing what we loved. And I think that shows. New generations are still discovering the movie and say it’s a great film. I’m proud to be a part of it.
Fox News: You also appeared in another iconic film, "Funny Face." What was your impression of Audrey Hepburn?
Lee: Audrey was the most wonderful, precious girl. She never came across as a movie star. She was very down to earth. And she was very smart about conserving her energy. She didn’t spend a lot of time on set laughing and carrying on with the rest of the company like you would normally do in between takes. Instead, she would conserve her energy until it was time for her to perform. But she was absolutely lovely to everyone.
And my God was she beautiful. She didn’t have the usual look you would expect from a movie star in those days. She brought a whole new look to the business that was all her. And you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by it. But she was just so marvelous as a person too. She was such a joy to work with.
Fox News: It’s been said you audition for the role of Ginger in "Gilligan’s Island." What happened?
Lee: Well, I can’t tell you a hell of a lot about it. I can tell you I didn’t get the role *laughs*. I think the main reason is I didn’t have nice big boobs. It didn’t matter how much rubber I put in there. It just didn’t look quite as good.
Fox News: How was it working with the Rat Pack?
Lee: It was probably the most gloriously fun time of my life. I mean, just imagine, being with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and several other Vegas comics of the day. It was just one big laugh after the other. Frank would always say to the crew, "Look, I don’t care if it takes you a week to set up the shot, set it up. And then don’t tell me that we have to redo it again because there was a squeak in the wheel, a light went out, or there was a distraction from a sound. I’ll give you one take."
So he would do one take. And the rest of the time we laughed, screamed and pulled pranks on each other. And they always had great stories to tell. It was an absolute miracle to work with these guys. All of them were charmers. And in the process, I became a good friend of Frank’s. But you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that.
Fox News: Fair enough. But who was your favorite leading man to work with?
Lee: Gosh, of course, one of my favorites would certainly be Frank. Why? Because he just changed a lot of things in my life and it made it so much nicer for me. Being part of his circle was quite a blessing. Tyrone Power in "Witness for the Prosecution" was just wonderful. Charles Laughton was very sweet, but a rather strange leading man. He was just so remote. He was very reticent about mixing and mingling. He was very, very shy or he was just quiet.
Now, Darren McGavin, he was great fun. And of course, there’s Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and the wonderful Clint Eastwood. Let’s face it, I like them all. They were all different from each other and I loved every moment of it.
Fox News: Between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who was the most challenging to work with and why?
Lee: In some ways, they were both perfectionists. Fred had a style that was very unique. He came from a generation where tap dancing was into the floor, meaning everything was pounded into the floor. Your body went "bang, bang, bang." There was a strong heaviness to it that used up your entire strength. But he took tap dancing into the air. He made it as light as butterfly wings.
As for Gene, he made his dancing like a routine for the Olympics. It was very strong and masculine while Fred’s was gentle. And Gene relied on comedy and great athleticism. They were both perfectionists but they really loved each other. And one thing they both did was rehearse constantly. They never stopped.
In fact, Debbie Reynolds once told me that there were days when her feet were bleeding from the blisters and sores just working with Gene Kelly. He made her dance constantly. But she also described it as a true masterclass of dance. And when you’re young, you’re not afraid of anything. You just take the plunge. That’s what she did. Fred was the same. He would rehearse until the sun came up. It would be six in the morning and he would say, "It’s time to quit." They just completely immersed themselves in dance.
Fox News: What has kept you going as a performer?
Lee: There are very few things I didn’t do. And in those days, you just kept busy. If I wasn’t doing a film, I was on television. And if I wasn’t doing that, I was hitting the road or on stage. If something didn’t come your way, you just had to keep yourself busy. There were some things that I’m sorry that I didn’t do, but that happens to all of us. And looking back, I wanted to do it all. I wanted to sing, I wanted to dance, I wanted to act – all of it. I did. And I loved every minute of it.