Zasu Pitts was one of the most famed and revered actresses of the silent film era of cinema. But while many of her contemporaries struggled to make the transition to talkies, she gracefully adapted to the changing times and found continued success mainly in comedy films that featured sound.
Pitts likewise experienced success in other areas of the entertainment industry throughout her five-decade-spanning career. She began her career on stage doing school plays and community theater in Santa Cruz, California, and years later, in the 1930s, she found work in radio appearing in a number of popular series, including Fibber Mcgee and Molly. Reconnecting with her roots, Pitts staged a return to the theater stage when she tackled Broadway in 1944.
Post World War II, Pitts continued to appear in films and eventually wound up on TV making appearences on shows such as ABCs Guestward, Ho, and CBS’ Perry Mason.
Declining health seemed to be one of the most pervasive themes of Pitt’s later years. In the mid-50s, she was diagnosed with cancer, but instead of retiring from acting to focus on her health, Pitts continued to work. In fact, she kept doing what she knew and loved right up until the end.
Join us as we recount Pitts’s incredibly inspiring life story. She may not be the best-known name in Hollywood’s history, but all of us could take a page from her playbook and learn a thing or two about dedication and perseverance.
Facts Verse Presents: Zasu Pitts Continued Acting After Her Cancer Diagnosis
Zasu’s Early Life and Rise To Fame
Zasu Pitts was born on the 3rd of January, 1894, in Parsons, Kansas, to parents Nelly and Rulandus Pitts. She was the third of four children, and her father happened to be a Civil War veteran who lost his leg serving in the 76th New York Infantry.
Reportedly, Zasu got her name based on the names of her father’s two sisters, Eliza and Susan. It’s been said that to satisfy competing family interests, Zasu’s parents simply combined the two names into one that was entirely unique for the time. Today, Zasu might not sound all that peculiar compared to some of the names that modern parents are giving to their kids, but back in the late 19th century, it was pretty out there.
Another interesting thing that can be said about Pitt’s first name is just how often it’s been misspelled and mispronounced throughout history. In her 1963 book Candy Hits which was published the year that she died, Zasu gave the correct pronunciation of her name as “Say Zoo”. That being said, when she introduced herself on an episode of I’ve Got A Secret that aired on September 4, 1952, she pronounced the name as “Zay-zoo”.
Anyway, not to get too sidetracked, when Pitts was 9 years old her family relocated to Santa Cruz, California. They made the move in search of a warmer climate with better employment opportunities. Once in the Golden State, Zasu attended Santa Cruz High School. There, she participated in school plays and developed her love for acting.
Pitts ended up making her stage debut in the 1914-1915 school year, although outside of school, she also participated in community theater. In 1916, she went to Los Angeles and spent the next several months looking for work as a film extra. Eventually, all of her efforts paid off when she was discovered for substantive movie roles by the revered silent film-era screenwriter Frances Marion.
Marion subsequently cast Pitts as an orphaned “slavey” girl in his 1917 silent film A Little Princess, which saw her sharing the screen with the legendary Mary Pickford.
Pitt’s popularity blossomed following a series of one-reeler comedies produced by Universal. She earned her first lead role in a feature-length film in King Vidor’s 1919 silent film comedy Better Times. She followed that role up with a performance in 1920s Heart of Twenty. That same year, she married her first husband, Tom Gallery. Not only did these two young lovebirds both appear in Heart of Twenty, but they went on to appear in three more films together, 1921s Bright Eyes and Patsy and 1922s A Daughter of Luxury.
She Was A Queen Of Comedy
Pitts achieved peak fame in the early 30s. During this time, she frequently could be seen in B-movies and comedy shorts while teaming up with Thelma Todd. She played accompanying roles in numerous films, and her stock persona consisted of a fretful, worried, and flustered spinster.
This character made her instantly identifiable by her critics and fans, and virtually overnight she had become a household name. She was so iconic that her likeness was even frequently imitated in cartoons and other movies.
Pitts went to star in several Hal Roach short films and feature-length movies, often joining forces with Thelma Todd as a duo of trouble-prone working girls. Over at Universal, Pitts co-starred in a series of several popular feature-length comedy films opposite Slim Summerville. Transitioning between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of the talkie, Pitts became known for being a specialist in comedic roles.
She Shined In Dramatic Roles
Pitts had many hidden talents – one of those being her adeptness at performing in dramatic roles. She was given the most significant tragic role of her acting career when she appeared in Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 7 ½ hour psychological drama film Greed.
When Pitts was cast in the role, the decision sent a shockwave throughout Hollywood, but it also proved that Pitts was capable of drawing tears with her anguished demeanor. She was no longer seen as a one trick pony. Not only could she make the audience laugh, but she could also invoke strong emotional responses. This versatility is why she ended up being remembered as one of the greatest actresses of her time.
Greed ended up being extensively edited prior to getting a release. In fact, the final theatrical cut ran just a little over two hours. Even with those cutbacks, the movie ended up failing initially at the box office. Since then, however it’s been restored to over four hours and is now considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made.
Impressed with Pitts’s performance, Von Strohelm ended labeling her as the ‘greatest dramatic actress’ he ever had the pleasure of working with. He went on to feature her in several of his subsequent films, including The Honeymoon, Walking Down Broadway, and The Wedding March.
In Walking Down Broadway, Pitts once again delivered a stellar dramatic performance, but the film’s subject material ended up causing a bit of controversy. Her character showed a repressed romantic interest in one of her girlfriends. In the end, the studio chose to reshoot those scenes instead showing Pitts playing the girl’s companion for laughs. Von Strohelm was also stripped of his directorial credit, and the film was released under the name Hello, Sister in 1933.
While she shined in dramatic roles, the public was so used to seeing Pitts in comedies that they hardly took her dramatic efforts seriously.
When she was cast as the distraught mother of a young soldier in the 1930 war drama All Quiet on the Western Front, test audiences initially reacted to her performance with unintentional laughter. Because of this, her scenes ened up being re-filmed with Beryl Mercer.
In 1936, RKO Pictures was looking to replace one of the actresses in it’s Hildegarde Withers murder mystery series. Edna May Oliver ended up leaving the studio, and Helen Broderick took her place. When Broderick eventually moved on from the role, Pitts was chosen as her successor. While theoritically this casting choice could have been seen as a good idea as Pitts seemed to fill the role of the prim and propper spinster schoolmistress quite well, fans of the series and the mystery genre at large couldn’t accept Pitts as being a cunning sleuth who outwitted even the police. After appearing in two of these Hildegarde Withers films, the series ended up getting scrapped entirely.
Returning To Her Roots And Breaking New Ground
In the 1930s, Pitts began working in radio. She appeared in quite a few of the earliest Fibber Mcgee and Molly episodes, portraying a fluttery Dane who was constantly on the lookout for a husband. After Marlan Jordan was forced to take a leave from the series due to illness, Pitts made several guest appearances opposite the lead Jim Jordan as a Fibber.
Pitts went on to guest star on several variety shows, sharing the airwaves with stars like Rudy Vallee, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and Bing Crosby. She also portrayed the character Miss Mamie Wayne on the soap opera Big Sister.
Pitts made her Broadway debut in 1944 in the mystery Ramshackle Inn. The play was actually specifically penned with her in mind, and ended up doing well. After it’s first run, Pitts took the show on the road.
Around this time, Pitts was also a frequent contributor to summer stock theaters. In fact, every year she performed in the Norma Mitchell play Post Road.
Post World War II, Pitts continued to appear in comedies like 1947’s Life with Father. By the 1950s, however, she started to focus mainly on television. This led her to land her best-known role in a series playing second banana to the late-great Gale Storm in the 1956 CBS sitcom The Gale Storm Show. In that series, she played the shipboard beautician Elvira ‘Nugie’ Nugent.
In 1961, Pitts was cast as Earle Hodgins co-star in an episode of Guestward, Ho titled ‘Lonesome’s Gal’. The following year she appeared in an episode of Perry Mason.
She Kept Acting Even After Her Diagnosis
Pitt’s was diagnosed with cancer inthe mid-1950s. While her declining health certainly made working more difficult, Pitts refused to let her diagnosis hold her back from doing what she loved. She continued to act, appearing in television shows and films like 1963s The Thrill of it All and Kubrick’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, right up until the very end.
Zasu Pitts passed away on June 7, 1963 at the age of 69.
For her many contributions to the world of cinema, Pitts has been awarded with a number of honors and accolades. In 1960, she was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and more recently, in 1994, she was honored with her image appearing on a United States postal stamp.
On that note, we’ll go ahead and wrap this video up. But before you go, take a moment to show us a little support by dropping us a line in the comments.
Did you know that silent film star Zasu Pitts successfully managed to transition into talkies and that she continued to work even after receiving her cancer diagnosis? Let us know, and as always, thanks for watching.