Some people are born to play bit parts; others have bit parts thrust upon them; still, others are born to have bit parts thrust upon them; and, a fourth group is essential because they did most of the thrusting. So let it be with Kathleen Turner, a woman who was never a star, but always recognizable…
Kathleen Freeman was born on the seventeenth of February in the year 1919 to Jessica Dixon & Frank Freeman and was immediately upstaged. Her parents were a well-known vaudeville team: Jessica sang and Frank performed in black-face as a minstrel. Despite what you may have heard, minstrel shows were not racist; they were sensitive portrayals of African-americans as stupid, cowardly and clueless; or, as I believe it was called, “Cultural Sensitivity in the Time of Cholera”.
Kathleen began performing on stage with her parents at the age of two because it was cheaper than hiring a baby sitter. It is highly unlikely that her singing killed vaudeville but upon finishing her first number, a priest was called to deliver last rites just in case. She performed with her parents off and on until she came of age. At that point, it was decided that she go to the University of California to study music.
Let me say, at this point, that “it” decides a lot of things and that “it” is wrong about half the time. Freeman did study music for a while; but, she eventually switched to acting. Her own explanation is that, during a musical performance, she “got a laugh”. To potential clowns, comics, comedians, humorists and lumberjacks, a first laugh is as addictive as that first refreshing shot of heroin. Sure, they’ll eventually find you freebasing old Marx Brothers routines in a rest stop bathroom, trying to amuse a group of hikers from Des Moines; but, until you hit rock bottom, humor seems like a perfectly viable career. I think a lot of accountants start out the same way…
After college, the roles started like a torrent of a trickle of a tidal wave of non-activity. Her first role was “girl on train” in the movie Naked City. She said, “Did you read about that bathtub murder?”. And, she so impressed producers that she wasn’t credited in the film… or the next three.
After three non-credited roles, she did star, probably for the only time, as a Swedish house-servant in Annie was a Wonder. It was a short movie about fond memories the narrator had of his housekeeper, Annie, essentially a slave. Freeman did a great job but, if aliens ever have to decide whether to wipe out our species on the basis of that movie, I wouldn’t make any long-term plans.
After that, Kathleen Freeman averaged about seven movie roles a year, most uncredited. And, these were good movies like Singin’ in the Rain and Monkey Business. The roles got larger even though she still was not often listed at the end of the movie. But, how important is recognition to an actor? That isn’t rhetorical, I actually need to know this as I haven’t known an actor since high school.
By the early fifties, half of her roles were television. There was just something about her. When they needed to portray a character that was fat and ugly, they called Kathleen. Not that she was fat and ugly, but she was MOVIE fat and ugly… that means pleasant to look at but not drop-dead gorgeous. Like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. It was in the fifties that Ms. Freeman started working with a man whose genius he himself could only begin to describe. I refer, of course, to Jerry Lewis.
Her first Lewis role was uncredited, as was her custom at the time. The movie was Artists and Models. The movie was either a “delightful romp” or “unbearable idiocy”, depending upon the gender of the person you ask. Her next Lewis movie was The Ladies Man. Jerry Lewis must’ve seen something in her because she was a major character in this one and… CREDITED. But, her character had yet to get a last name in a Lewis movie. In The Errand Boy, Kathleen Freeman’s character got that coveted last name and the rest is history… mostly because this entire essay is historical…
To understand the extent of Freeman’s comedy skills, one only has to see her in The Disorderly Orderly. It’s a pleasure to see her slow burn to rage while Lewis cringes like someone a whipped dog might whip.
Kathleen Freeman’s television roles became more frequent, often as recurring characters. It wasn’t until 1973 that she would be an actual member of a sit-com cast. That show was Lotsa Luck and, despite what you may have heard, it didn’t end before it began. It was a time of ethnic comedies when racism was discussed frankly and freely. We don’t discuss it now because there is no racism any more, of course.
Freeman’s roles got coarser as she got older: An unbelievably foul-mouthed
landlady in Dragnet, a moll in one of the Naked Gun movies and The Penguin in the movie The Blues Brothers. From there she went on to another television series and plenty of voice acting.
She was still acting on stage in The Full Monty when she succumbed to cancer, in 2001. The standing ovations she would get upon her first appearance on stage each performance was proof that we can love a bit-player or supporting actress as if they are a star…