Some love today for the lovely “Lovey”, Natalie Schafer (1900-1991). For many years the true birth date was unknown; it was long misrepresented to have been 1912. Her real age was hidden from her husband Louis Calhern, to whom she was married from 1933 to 1942, from her fiance Charles Butterworth (whom she was seeing at the time of his death in 1946); and from the producers and cast of Gilligan’s Island. She was a dozen years older than Jim Backus, her husband on the show. (“Heh heh, By George!)
Schafer had been 27 years old at the time of her Broadway debut in Trigger (1927-28), directed by George Cukor, with Claiborne Foster, Walter Connolly, and Minor Watson. Most of her Broadway appearances were in short-lived shows, with the exceptions of Lady in the Dark (1941-42) with Gertrude Lawrence, The Doughgirls (1942-44), and Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet (1957-58). I am especially intrigued by the fact that she starred in Tyrone Guthrie’s revival of Six Characters in Search of an Author (1955-56) — no word of a lie, that’s excellent preparation for Gilligan’s Island!
While she had appeared in one Vitaphone comedy short The Poor Fish as early as 1930, her screen career did not really get rolling until the 1940s, around the time she broke up with Calhern. Schafer played supporting roles in scores of movies back in the day, as you surely know, because when she shows up on screen, you go “Hey! It’s Lovey!” And she was often cast in the same sort of posh, society women. Much like Mabel Albertson, who also played these WASPy characters, she was actually Jewish. Her films include Wonder Man (1945) with Danny Kaye, The Time of Your Life (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), Callaway Went Thataway (1951), Casanova’s Big Night (1954), Forty Carats (1973), Day of the Locust (1975) and Beverly Hills Brats (1989). Outside the Gilligan-verse she also made guest appearances on tv shows like I Love Lucy, The Loretta Young Show, The Goldbergs, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and The Love Boat.
Shafer was indeed worth millions. When she died, a couple of those millions went to renovate part the Lillian Booth Actors Home in New Jersey, which is now called the Natalie Schafer Wing.
For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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