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Irene Ryan: 10 Facts About the Actress Who Played Granny on ‘The Beverly Hillbilllies’

In a career that spanned 50 years, the actress performed on stage, the radio, the big screen and television

So often it seems impossible to separate an actor from their most famous character, and that is certainly true of Irene Ryan, who filled viewers with laughter throughout the 1960s as Granny on the CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.

But as is so often the case, there is much more to them leading up to said famous character — the road taken, with its various twists and turns that ultimately brought them to that pivotal moment in their lives resulting in that special connection with the public.

Don’t miss reading our other stories all about The Beverly Hillbillies

Irene Ryan was born Irene Noblitt on October 17, 1902 in El Paso, Texas. She was the younger (by 17 years) sister to Anna, and the daughter to the former Catherine J. McSharry — who had emigrated to the United States from Ireland — and James Merritt Noblitt, an army sergeant from North Carolina. It was a strict environment for Irene, who nonetheless pushed back against her parents’ wishes by pursuing a career in entertainment.

What follows are 10 facts that help provide a fuller portrait of Irene Ryan, tracing where she came from and how she was able to succeed in a career that would span about 50 years.

1. A $3 prize gave her the incentive to be an entertainer

Irene Ryan at the premiere of the film 'The Americanization of Emily', 1964
Irene Ryan at the premiere of the film The Americanization of Emily, 1964 Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

When Irene was only 11 years old, she sang the song “Pretty Baby” for an amateur talent contest held at San Francisco’s Valencia Theater. As a result, she took home a prize of $3 (about $95 these days), realizing she loved the sound of applause and deciding then and there that someday she would be an entertainer. She would do so without the support of her mother, who proclaimed, “If you ever encounter the Devil, it will be backstage.”

2. Love and marriage led to vaudeville

At the age of 20, she married a writer-comedian-actor named Tim Ryan, officially changing her name from Irene Noblitt to Irene Ryan (though it would take a bit of time before that would happen professionally). The two formed a comedy team named “Tim and Irene,” a duo that would perform on the vaudeville stage, in 11 short comedy films and on radio.

3. Divorce did not slow Irene Ryan down

The marriage may have fallen apart in 1942, but Irene Ryan’s desire to entertain remained intact. She spent two years touring with Bob Hope’s radio program, and in 1943 appeared in the country music film O, My Darling Clementine as well as a pair of RKO short films starring Edgar Kennedy. During this period, Tim Ryan had become quite popular as an actor, so the former couple were teamed up in four films, including 1944’s Hot Rhythm.

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4. It took her quite some time to be happy with who she was

Although it took many years for this to happen, Irene Ryan finally, by the 1950s, had come to accept herself for who she was and not worry about whether or not she could fit into the more glamorous side of Hollywood.

In 1953, she explained to the media, “There was a time when I envied the most beautiful girl in my class, but I outgrew that and learned to make the most of my funny face. Finding a pleasant form of expression, being happy or successful, does not depend on having regular features. Don’t let anything stop you from getting everything you want out of life.

“The less beautiful you are, the harder you will have to work developing yourself,” she added, “but far better than depending on beauty for everything. What will you have when that fades?”

5. In the 1950s, she was drawn to television

Dennis Day (L) and Irene Ryan on Day's TV show in the 1950s
Dennis Day (L) and Irene Ryan on Day’s TV show in the 1950s John Swope/Getty Images

Although she continued to appear in movies, Irene Ryan found her true calling on television in the 1950s, beginning with a 1955 episode of The Danny Thomas Show, followed by The Real McCoys, The Dennis Day Show, a 1960 sitcom called Bringing Up Buddy and My Three Sons.

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6. The Beverly Hillbillies changed her life

In 1962, she was cast as “Granny” on The Beverly Hillbillies, but despite what the general perception might be, it was not an easy role to get.

As she related to the El Paso Times in 1972, “I had to fight for it. I had worked with the script writer, Paul Henning, before on The Dennis Day Show, so I went up and read for him. It was the first time I had to close a script from laughing. But they told my agent I was too young and I told ’em if they had had anybody older, they’d never make it up at 5a.m. for filming.” Not very long after she was told that she had the job.

7. Irene Ryan loved The Beverly Hillbillies

The cast of The Beverly Hillbillies, 1963
The cast of The Beverly Hillbillies, 1963©CBS/courtesy

By the time The Beverly Hillbillies had reached its second season, the media — as well as the audience — had fully embraced the show. Irene Ryan was probably one of its biggest fans, as she commented in 1963, “It’s like I have gone to heaven. Honestly, it’s so funny that I just sit and laugh. Six months ago, no one cared whether I was alive or dead. Now everyone I meet asks, ‘How old are you, really, Granny?’ The show is just so simple, just good old-fashioned comedy. No one is neurotic, we don’t solve no world problems and there’s no message about anything.” Laughter, it would seem, was enough.

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8. The Beverly Hillbillies years were busy ones for her

Irene Ryan’s popularity on The Beverly Hillbillies opened other doors for her. In 1965, she signed a two-year contract to perform at the Sahara in Las Vegas, a show that was a combination of comedy and music.

On top of that, she brought the Granny character to Mister Ed in 1965, an uncredited part in the 1966 movie Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title and two episodes of Petticoat Junction in 1968, the latter series sharing a “universe” with The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. She would appear as a celebrity contestant on TV game shows and on four episodes of The Hollywood Palace in 1969.

9. She only had a brief post-Granny Career

With The Beverly Hillbillies ending its run in 1971, Irene Ryan decided to essentially go back to her roots on the stage by scoring the role of Berthe in the Bob Fosse musical Pippin in 1972, where her standout number was “No Time At All” (see the video above).

Tragically, on March 10, 1973 she suffered what is believed to have been a stroke in the middle of a performance. Flown back to California, she was told by physicians that she was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, which would claim her life on April 26, 1973 at the age of 70.

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10. The legacy of Irene Ryan continues

Pippin stars Irene Ryan, Jill Clayburgh and John Rubenstein during a rehearsal break in August 1972
Pippin stars Irene Ryan, Jill Clayburgh and John Rubenstein during a rehearsal break in August 1972 Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

In 1972, she had created the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, which provides scholarships to extraordinary actors who have been a part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. That scholarship continues to this day, as does the enduring memory of Irene Ryan as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.

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