The Remarkable Ruth Attaway

Ruth Attaway (1910-1987) enjoyed an amazing career, beginning with her role as Rheba in the original Broadway production of You Can’t Take it With You (1936-38) and concluding with the pivotal role of Louise in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1980), the final film for both herself and Peter Sellers. And, in between, a rich and varied life of diverse accomplishments.

The daughter of a Greenville, Missisippi physician (at a time when black doctors were rare) she earned a degree in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Between acting engagements she occupied her time as a social worker throughout her life. Her brother, William Attaway was a writer of fiction, non-fiction, plays, screenplays and songs, best known for his 1941 novel Blood on the Forge. He also performed as Donald in the 1939 national tour of You Can’t Take it With You.

In 1945, Ruth Attaway became a director with the Harlem-based New York Players Guild. His career as an actress took off a decade later, both on Broadway and in film and television. Other films in which she appeared included the Andrew Jackson bio-pic The President’s Lady (1953) with Susan Hayward and Charlton Heston, Raintree County (1957), the 1959 version of Porgy and Bess, Terror in the City (1964), Conrack (1974) and The Taking of Pelham One Two THree (1974, she’s the mayor’s nurse). Her ten other Broadway appearances included Mrs. Patterson (1954) with Eartha Kitt and Vinie Burrows, and the original production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964). She was with Lincoln Center’s short-lived repertory company from 1964 through 1967.

Attaway was 77 when she was killed in a fire in her Manhattan apartment.