Childhood & Early Years
Kathleen Freeman was born on February 17, 1919 in Chicago, Illinois. Both her parents were professional vaudevillians, but her mother was also an opera artist. Kathleen was her parents’ only child.
She first appeared on stage when she was only two years old, participating in her parents’ vaudeville song and dance act ‘Dixon and Freeman’. At that time, vaudeville had started to lose its charm, and when its popularity hit rock bottom, the Freemans moved to Los Angeles to try their luck in Hollywood.
Not much is known about her childhood years except that she began to take piano lessons early in her life, as her parents wanted her to become a musician. Her mother was very particular about her formal education; therefore, Kathleen attended a regular school, where she also performed in plays, getting laughs for her comic acts.
After school, she enrolled in the ‘University of California’ to study music. One night, she was accompanying her college’s production team, which was going to perform the play ‘Pygmalion’. When one of the actresses failed to turn up, Kathleen was asked to take up her place. She never had to look back ever since.
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After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, Kathleen Freeman began her professional acting career and worked with various stock and repertory companies. In 1946, she joined some UCLA students to form a new group called ‘The Circle’, which was later renamed ‘El Centro Theatre’.
The Circle’s first performance was held at a converted grocery store, where they produced ‘Ethan Frome’, with Kathleen depicting the role of Zenobia Frome. A Hollywood talent scout spotted her while she was performing in ‘Ethan Frome’ and offered her a movie role.
In 1948, she debuted in films with an un-credited role in ‘Naked City’, in which she had just one line, "Didja read about the bathtub murder?" Later in the same year, she appeared in three other movies, ‘Casbah', 'Behind Locked Doors' and 'The Saxon Charm', all of which were un-credited roles.
Kathleen got her first film credit in 1949 when she played the role of Annie Swenson in ‘Annie Was a Wonder’. It was followed by a number of films, in which she depicted a variety of characters like sharp and sarcastic maids, nosy neighbors and dominating nurses. She was known for injecting a comic effect in all her movie characters.
By the early 1950s, she was acting in almost 11 films and television productions a year, many of which were un-credited roles. For example, she was Phoebe Dinsmore in ‘Singing in the Rain’, a party guest in ‘House by the River’, a spectator in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
Playing the role of a maid in the 1953-1954 sitcom ‘Toppers’ and a custard-pie gag victim in the 1954 film '3 Ring Circus’ were her other important works of the early 1950s. Her popularity further increased when she appeared as a guest star in the children’s series ‘Buckskin’ in 1958.
After ‘Buckskin’, Kathleen went on to appear on numerous television shows, including ‘Mister Ed’, ‘Laramie’, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’, etc. Concurrently, she also continued to appear in films.
She remained active in movie productions throughout the 1960s. Beginning the decade with ‘North to Alaska’, ‘The Errand Boy’, ‘The Disorderly Orderly’, ‘Support Your Local Sheriff’ and most notably, ‘The Nutty Professor’, were some of her major works of this period.
Kathleen began the 1970s with the comedy movie 'Myra Breckinridge’, playing the role of Bobby Dean Loner. At the age of 59, she made her Broadway debut in Georges Feydeau's 1978 play ‘13 Rue de l'Amour’, appearing as Madame Spritzer.
In spite of her advancing age, she continued to work in movies, appearing as Sister Mary Stigmata in the 1980 film ‘The Blues Brother’. In 1998, she reprised the role in its sequel, ‘Blues Brothers 2000’. Concurrently, she continued to be seen in Broadway productions.
In 2001, Kathleen made her last Broadway appearance as Jeanette Burmeister in ‘The Full Monty’, a role that earned her a Tony award nomination for Best Actress. Her last screen credits were for the animated TV series ‘As Told by Ginger’, in which she dubbed the voice for Mrs. Gordon; and ‘Shrek’, in which she was the voice of an old woman.