The Backstory of Barbara Ruick

I became intrigued by Barbara Ruick (1930-74) from an eye-catching bit turn she performs in Robert Altman’s California Split. She plays a lady bartender in a cowgirl outfit in the climactic poker scene. Ruick only has a couple of lines, but something about it was arresting to me. She seems much more confident and present than an ordinary extra, and Altman seems to give her slightly more attention and screentime than would be typical (though Altman is often generous in this way to minor characters, allowing them their moments to shine). But it turns out there are NUMEROUS reasons for her prominent presence in the scene.

The first is, sadly, she died during the shoot. She left work early one night, citing a splitting headache and upset stomach. Someone went to check on her the next day when she didn’t return to the set and found her dead. Brain hemorrhage. So this little scene was to be her last. She was only 44 years old.

Secondly, she wasn’t just an extra. Of primary interest I think to contemporary readers will be the fact that she was the wife of composer John Williams, who had recently worked on Altman’s movies Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973). Williams had been successful for a decade by that point, but wouldn’t truly become a household name until Jaws, the following year. Sadly, Ruick would not be there to enjoy it.

And thirdly, even if she had not been married to Williams, Ruick had her own claims to fame from earlier decades! She had been a singer and actress in the 1950s, whose most notable credits were the 1956 film version of Carousel and the 1965 TV remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Having her in the film was not unlike his inclusion of Bobby Troupe in M*A*S*H. And there are wonderful layers to peel back. She was actually fourth generation showfolk. Her mother was the great radio star Lurene Tuttle, whom we wrote about here. Her father, Melville Ruick was also in the biz, but not as major as her mother.

Barbara started out singing with bands as a teenager, which led to singing and acting on radio and on records. In 1951 she appeared in Chico Marx’s short-lived show The College Bowl and on The Jerry Colonna Show. Her first movie role was a supporting part in the film Invitation (1952) with Van Johnson, Dorothy Maguire and Ruth Roman. By Apache War Smoke (1952) Ruick was fourth-billed, behind Gilbert Roland, Glenda Farrell, and Robert Horton. She became involved with the latter, and was married to him for two years. In 1953, she was a regular on The Johnny Carson Show (his variety series prior to The Tonight Show). Through the ’50s she also appeared on The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Dennis Day Show, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, The Loretta Young Show, etc. She married Williams in 1956, and was mostly retired by 1961. All told she had around three dozen film and television credits.

It’s a pity she went when she did, yeah? Her husband’s career was about to break wide open, she was appearing onscreen again for the first time in nearly a decade, and she was only 44. Also her son Joseph Williams would make a name for himself in the rock music business (he was lead singer of Toto for awhile in the ’80s). There was a future ahead she might have enjoyed a great deal. But, come to think of it, the same could be said of Methusaleh. One would always like more time.

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,