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ZaSu Pitts (Template:PronEng[1]; January 3, 1894[2]– June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, although later, her career digressed to comedy sound films. She overcame her looks and voice, which had served her in silent films to play dramatic roles, using them to craft her persona in talkie comedies.

Early life

ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nellie (Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.[3]

The names of her mother's sisters Eliza and Susan became the basis for ZaSu's unique first name, which has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts or Zasu Pitts in many film credits and articles. Though the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæzuː/ ZA-zoo, /ˈzeɪsuː/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzeɪzuː/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" (/ˈseɪzuː/), recounting that Mary Pickford predicted , "[M]any will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right [she] was...."

In 1903, when she was nine years old, the family moved to Santa Cruz, California, seeking a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.[4]


Pitts made her stage debut in 1915 and was discovered two years later for films by pioneer screenwriter Frances Marion. Pitts made her debut in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Mary Pickford. Pitts became a leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece, Greed (1924); based on this performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". Von Stroheim also featured her in his films Sins of the Fathers (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello, Sister! (1933). She earned praise in all those films.

File:Zasu Pitts Who's Who on the Screen.jpg

ca. 1920

Pitts grew in popularity following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she met and married actor Tom Gallery. The couple paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). Their daughter, Ann, was born in 1922.

In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's epic classic, Greed (1924), a nine-hour-plus picture, edited to under two hours. The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. The movie has gained respect over time, having failed initially at the box office due to its extensive cutting.

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She also played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach shorts and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville.

Switching between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite the intensity of her acting. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in The Dummy (1929), Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).

In the 1940s, she also found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading quivery banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series, replacing Edna May Oliver, was not successful, however.

In 1944 Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on TV.

This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah), as Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. Her last role was as a switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and, one day past six months after the filming of the last scene, she became that movie's second cast member to die.

Personal life


  • Tom Gallery (July 23, 1920  – May 2, 1933; divorced); two children: Ann Gallery (natural) and Don Gallery (born Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 drug-related death of his mother and Pitts' good friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr.
  • John E. Woodall (October 8, 1933  – June 7, 1963) (her death).


Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end – making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, besides It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood, California and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.


  • ZaSu Pitts was an excellent cook and collector of candy recipes, which culminated in a cookbook titled Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, published posthumously in 1963.
  • Mae Questel caricatured Pitts's voice and "oh, dear" mannerisms for the character Olive Oyl for the Fleischer Studios animated cartoon version of Popeye the Sailor.
  • ZaSu Pitts has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.[4]
  • In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.
  • During the 1980s, a large R&B/Soul band based in San Francisco performed under the name "The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra"
  • She was referenced by the comedic trio Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker in the 1982 police spoof comedy series Police Squad!. In one scene of the episode "A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)" (which first aired on March 4, 1982), lead character Frank Drebin exposes a suspect's secret identity by reciting that she was formerly "a brunette hitman known as Zasu Pitts".
  • A street in Las Vegas, Nevada is named after her.

Selected filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1917 Little Princess, TheThe Little Princess Becky
1918 How Could You Jean? Oscar's Sweetheart
1918 Talk of the Town, TheThe Talk of the Town
1919 Better Times Nancy Scroggs
1919 Other Half, TheThe Other Half Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
1919 Poor Relations Daisy Perkins
1920 Seeing It Through Betty Lawrence
1921 Patsy Patsy
1922 Youth to Youth Emily
1923 Souls for Sale Herself Cameo role
1923 Three Wise Fools Mickey
1923 Hollywood Herself Cameo role
1924 Daughters of Today Lorena
1924 Triumph A Factory Girl
1924 Changing Husbands Delia
1924 Greed Trina
1925 Great Divide, TheThe Great Divide Polly Jordan
1925 Pretty Ladies Maggie Keenan
1925 Great Love, TheThe Great Love Nancy
1926 Monte Carlo Hope Durant
1926 Sunny Side Up Evelyn
1927 Casey at the Bat Camille
1928 Wedding March, TheThe Wedding March Cecelia Schweisser
1929 Paris Harriet
1929 Locked Door, TheThe Locked Door Telephone Girl
1929 This Thing Called Love Clara Bertrand
1930 No, No, Nanette Pauline Hastings
1930 Devil's Holiday, TheThe Devil's Holiday Ethel
1930 Monte Carlo Bertha
1931 Bad Sister, TheThe Bad Sister Minnie
1931 Seed Jennie
1931 Penrod and Sam Mrs. Bassett Alternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
1931 Guardsman, TheThe Guardsman Liesl, the Maid
1931 On the Loose Zasu Short subject
1932 Broken Lullaby Anna, Holderlin's Maid
1932 Shopworn Aunt Dot
1932 Destry Rides Again Temperance Worker Alternative title: Justice Rides Again
1932 Westward Passage Mrs. Truesdale
1932 Back Street Mrs. Dole
1932 Blondie of the Follies Gertie
1932 Crooked Circle, TheThe Crooked Circle Nora Rafferty
1933 They Just Had to Get Married Molly Hull
1933 Hello, Sister! Millie
1933 Meet the Baron Zasu
1933 Mr. Skitch Maddie Skitch
1934 Dames Matilda Ounce Hemingway
1934 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Miss Hazy
1934 Gay Bride, TheThe Gay Bride Mirabelle
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap Prunella Judson
1936 Thirteen Hours by Air Miss Harkins
1937 Forty Naughty Girls Hildegarde Withers
1939 Lady's from Kentucky, TheThe Lady's from Kentucky Dulcey Lee
1939 Eternally Yours Mrs. Bingham
1940 It All Came True Miss Flint
1940 No, No Nanette Pauline Hastings
1941 Niagara Falls Emmy Sawyer
1942 Bashful Bachelor, TheThe Bashful Bachelor Geraldine
1942 So's Your Aunt Emma Aunt Emma Alternative title: Meet the Mob
1943 Let's Face It! Cornelia Figeson
1946 Breakfast in Hollywood Elvira Spriggens
1947 Life with Father Cousin Cora Cartwright
1950 Francis Nurse Valerie Humpert
1952 Denver and Rio Grande Jane Dwyer
1954 Francis Joins the WACS Lt. Valerie Humpert
1957 This Could Be the Night Mrs. Katie Shea
1961 Teenage Millionaire, TheThe Teenage Millionaire Aunt Theodora
1963 Thrill of It All, TheThe Thrill of It All Olivia
1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Gertie–Switchboard Operator
Year Title Role Notes
1954 Best of Broadway, TheThe Best of Broadway Miss Preen Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
1956 20th Century Fox Hour, TheThe 20th Century Fox Hour Miss Appleton Episode: "Mr. Belvedere"
Gale Storm Show, TheThe Gale Storm Show Elvira Nugent 91 episodes
1957 Private Secretary Aunt Martha Episode: "Not Quite Paradise"
1960 Dennis O'Keefe Show, TheThe Dennis O'Keefe Show Loretta Kimball Episode: "Dimples"
1961 Guestward, Ho! Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
1961 Perry Mason Daphne Whilom Episode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
1963 Burke's Law Mrs. Bowie Episode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?"

See also

  • ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra
  • Pitts and Todd

1933 zasu pitts played in the movie "Asleep in the Feet"


  1. Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts; Duell, Sloan and Pearce; 1963; p. 15
  2. Concerning Pitts' year of birth, about which the actress often dissembled, some sources cite 1894 (IMDB: Zasu Pitts, Find-a-Grave, Golden Silents, Who2, and InfoPlease), while other sources cite 1898 (Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, 12th edition, HarperCollins, 1997, ISBN 0002557983 and TCM:Biography) or even 1900 (Allmovie:Overview and New York Times obituary (June 8, 1963))
  3. "Rulandus Pitts biography on 76th NY Regiment site". Retrieved 2010-06-07. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Barbara Giffen. "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 

External links

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