Ellen Hansen Corby was an American actress who garnered fame for portraying the role of Esther "Grandma" Walton in the CBS television series ‘The Waltons’, for which she received three Emmy Awards. A native of Wisconsin, Corby developed an interest in amateur theatre while she was in high school and subsequently started her career as a chorus girl. She later moved to Los Angles to work as a script girl at RKO Studios and Hal Roach Studios. While she appeared in multiple films in the 1930s and 1940s, the first role she received credit for was of Cathy, the maid, in the 1947 featurette comedy film ‘The Hal Roach Comedy Carnival’. A year later, she appeared in her breakthrough role in ‘I Remember Mama’. Over the course of her 66-year-long career, she accumulated over 260 film and television credits. After her death in 1999, as she predominantly portrayed small roles in films, Corby was not mentioned during the yearly ‘In Memoriam’ segment of the 72nd Academy Awards (2000).
Childhood & Early Life
Born on June 3, 1911, in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, Ellen Corby was the daughter of Danish immigrants. She was raised in Philadelphia and started harbouring an interest in amateur theatre when she was in high school.
She subsequently moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1932, and worked as a chorus girl for a brief period.
Sometime in the mid-1930s, she relocated to Hollywood and was employed as a script girl at RKO Studios and Hal Roach Studios for the following 11 years. When she was not working, she attended acting classes.
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Ellen Corby’s first screen appearance was in the 1933 war drama ‘Storm at Daybreak’. Throughout the 1930s and most of the 1940s, she played only uncredited roles.
After appearing as Cathy, the maid, in ‘The Fabulous Joe’ streamliner of ‘Hal Roach's Comedy Carnival’ in 1947, Corby landed the role of Aunt Trina in George Stevens’ 1948 drama ‘I Remember Mama’.
In 1949, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in ‘I Remember Mama.’
Corby made her TV debut in 1950, portraying the recurring character Rosa Peterson in ‘Stars over Hollywood’. While she had played various characters on the big screen, it was on television that she truly thrived. From 1955 to 1960, she appeared in multiple episodes of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’.
She also appeared in 24 episodes of CBS’ western drama ‘Trackdown’, portraying the recurring role of Henrietta Porter. Between 1961 and 1968, she played multiple characters in CBS’ legendary family adventure show ‘Lassie’. She also portrayed multiple characters in ‘The F.B.I’ between 1966 and 1970.
In 1958, she starred in the horror thriller ‘Macabre’. She played Mrs. Mabel Mayberry in the black-and-white science fiction film ‘Visit to a Small Planet’.
In 1961, she worked with Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, and Hope Lange in the Technicolor film ‘Pocketful of Miracles’. Her final cinematic appearance was in the 1972 adventure drama ‘Napoleon and Samantha’.
In the last stage of her career, she exclusively appeared in ‘The Waltons’ television series. Her final screen appearance was in the 1997 telefilm ‘A Walton Easter’. In 1989, Corby received the Golden Boot Award.
Ellen Corby appeared as Esther Walton in both the telefilm pilot ‘The Homecoming: A Christmas Story’ (1971) and the subsequent family drama television series ‘’The Waltons’. She was the only adult actor to have such a distinction.
Her 1976 real-life stroke was written into the story and her character was seen recovering from it. She was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Awards six times for her performance and won thrice (1973, 1975, and 1976). She was also nominated for the Golden Globe Awards four times and won once (1974).
Family & Personal Life
Ellen met filmmaker and cinematographer, Francis Corby, while she was working as a script girl at RKO Studios and Hal Roach Studios. They were married in 1934 and divorced in 1944. The couple did not have any children and Corby did not marry again.
Corby suffered a stroke in November 1976, but recovered and went on to act in multiple projects after that.
She passed away on April 14, 1999, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. She was 87 years old at the time. Her memorial site is located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
In 1969, Corby received training to be a teacher of transcendental meditation.