Rita Gam, Midcentury Hollywood Actress, Dies at 88


Photo

Rita Gam with Gregory Peck in the 1954 film “Night People.”

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20th Century Fox, via Photofest

Rita Gam, who made her eye-catching Hollywood debut without saying a word and played a real-life bridesmaid at the fairy-tale wedding of her former roommate Grace Kelly, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. She was 88.

The cause was respiratory failure, said Nancy Willen, a spokeswoman for the family.

Ms. Gam, who was once married to the film director Sidney Lumet, made her Broadway debut in Ben Hecht’s 1946 play “A Flag Is Born” and, after three more Broadway roles, made her first movie six years later, opposite Ray Milland in “The Thief,” a suspense film without dialogue.

Life magazine featured her on its cover that year as a “silent and sexy” star who “can express herself eloquently without words.” In just a few moments on the screen, the magazine said, Ms. Gam “makes a striking movie debut without uttering a word.”

She also appeared in two movies with Gregory Peck, “Night People” (1954) and “Shoot Out”(1971); “Sign of the Pagan” (1954), with Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler; “Hannibal” (1959), with Victor Mature; “King of Kings” (1961), in which she played Queen Herodias; and “Klute” (1971), with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.

Ms. Gam won a Silver Bear as best actress at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival for her performance in Tad Danielewski’s adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” She also acted on television and in regional theater and produced two documentary series, “World of Film” and “World of Beauty.”

Rita Eleanore Mackay was born in Pittsburgh on April 2, 1927, to Milton A. Mackay, a native of Alsace-Lorraine who died when she was 4, and the former Belle Fately, who was born in Romania.

She took the name of her stepfather, Benjamin J. Gam, a dress manufacturer, who was born in Russia. (As a synonym for glamorous legs, “gams” predates her film career.)

Raised in Manhattan, she attended the private Fieldston School in the Bronx and at 17 ran away from home (about 25 blocks, to a Midtown hotel), finding work modeling hats and selling stuffed pandas while pursuing an acting career.

She was married and divorced twice, first to Mr. Lumet (from 1949 to 1955) and then to Thomas Guinzburg (1956-63), a book publisher and co-founder of The Paris Review. She is survived by her daughter, Kate Guinzburg, a film producer; her son, Michael Guinzburg, a novelist; and two granddaughters. Thomas Guinzburg died in 2010 and Sidney Lumet in 2011.

As an actress, Ms. Gam befriended and roomed with Grace Kelly and was a bridesmaid at her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, a union of European aristocracy and Hollywood glamour that was one of the biggest social events of the decade.

An early participant at the Actors Studio, Ms. Gam also played a leading role, along with Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Zoe Caldwell and others, with the Minnesota Theater Company in 1963 during the opening season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

After generally being typecast in supporting roles in two dozen films for what Life described as “her sultry face and insinuating voice,” she recalled in 1992, “I looked into the black pit at 40 and wondered, what do I do for an encore?”

Before producing documentaries, she learned to type and wrote two books: “Actress to Actress” (1986), which included a chapter on Grace Kelly, and “Actors: A Celebration” (1988).

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