The Towering Talent of Joan Shawlee

Joan Shawlee (1926-1987) was usually a supporting player in film, tv and live performance, but she always made a big impression. The adjective “statuesque” is often applied to Shawlee. Official sources give her height as 5’9″, but in publicity she was often given out to be 6’3″. Her talent as a performer amplified the visual effect she created, resulting in memorable turns in countless classic productions.

The Forest Hills native studied ballet as a child, but clearly attained her height at an early age, for she was already modeling professionally at age 14. By 16, under the name Joyce Ring she was singing in nightclubs, performing as a showgirl, and cast in the choruses of two Broadway shows, By Jupiter (1942-43) and A Connecticut Yankee (1943-44).

In 1945 she went to Hollywood and worked her way rapidly from extra to supporting player under the name Joan Fulton (she changed her surname to Shawlee when she married in 1950). Her first named part is in the comedy Idea Girl (1946), in which she in fifth in the billing in a cast that also included Alan Mowbray and George Dolenz. She had the female lead in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates Come Home (1947), which led to her spot as a regular on The Abbott and Costello Show on TV in the early ’50s. Billy Wilder was also a fan. He cast her in the important role of the all-girl band leader Sweet Sue in Some Like it Hot (1959), as Amazon Annie in Irma La Douce (1963), and also in The Apartment (1960), and his final film Buddy Buddy (1981). Other classics and comedies she appeared in include Lover Come Back (1946) with Lucille Ball, From Here to Eternity (1953), Casanova’s Big Night (1954) with Bob Hope, Francis Joins the WACs (1954) with Donald O’Connor, A Star is Born (1954), Bowery to Bagdad (1955) with the Bowery Boys (as the female lead),  A Farewell to Arms (1957), Critics Choice (1963) with Hope and Ball, Guerillas in Pink Lace (1964), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) with Don Knotts, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), Tony Roma (1967), Live a Little Love a Little (1968) with Elvis Presley, and Farewell My Lovely (1975). She also appeared in entertaining schlock like Prehistoric Women (1950), Conquest of Space (1955), The Wild Angel (1966), Willard (1971), and Flash and the Firecat (1975).

An interesting detour: in 1961 Shawlee briefly formed a comedy team with the diminutive Mitzi McCall prior to her teaming with Charlie Brill. The pair played some nightclubs, with the bulk of their comedy material reflecting their height differential. Despite positive response, they comediennes both moved on to other things.

Joan Shawlee also enjoyed good success on television. After The Abbott and Costello Show, she starred in her own sitcom on British television, Aggie (1956-57) with no less than Patrick McGoohan as one of her supporting players. She was a regular on the short-lived The Betty Hutton Show (1959-60), and then went on to play a major character, though one who was also only seen twice, on The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1963 (she played “Pickles”, Morey Amsterdam’s wife, who is mentioned in nearly every single episode). She was also a regular on The Feather and Father Gang (1976-77) which we wrote about here. She also guested on shows like Hazel, Love American Style, Columbo, Emergency!, Starsky and Hutch, et al.

Her last film was City Heat (1984) with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Her last screen credit (of over 100), was a 1985 episode of Jack Warden’s show Crazy Like a Fox. Joan Shawlee died of breast cancer at the young age of 61.

For more on show business history please see  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.