And Turner Classic Movie Channel describes her as “the queen of playing mean onscreen.”
Yet actress Anne Ramsey started out as a debutante from a blueblood family.
She counted Mayflower Pilgrim William Brewster as an ancestor. Her father was an insurance executive and her mother the treasurer of Girl Scouts of America.
She attended an exclusive girls’ school in Greenwich, Connecticut with the evocative name of Rosemary Hall (not to be confused with a Woody Allen film).
But Anne decided at age 4 that she wanted to act, after seeing The Petrified Forest with her father (sophisticated viewing for a little girl).
No amount of elite upbringing would hold her back. Her “overnight success” came more than five decades later, at age 59, with an Oscar nod for Throw Momma From The Train.
Anne studied Performing Arts at Bennington College and graduated in 1951. She met her future husband, Logan Ramsey, while doing regional theatre in Surry, Maine. The two married in 1954, and together, established Philadelphia’s prestigious Theatre of the Living Arts.
It’s never easy to work the dream and makes ends meet. At one point, during the early ’60s, Anne took a job coordinating NFL award dinners (where she hired a young Dustin Hoffman as her messenger boy). She also did a stint as a New York Times food writer.
Logan cast teenage Barbra Streisand as Anne’s maid in a summer stock production. What goes around comes around. Anne finally made the big screen in 1974 at age 45. That same year, she appeared in the Streisand film, For Pete’s Sake.
But a whole generation fears and reveres Anne as Mama Fratelli, the evil matriarch in Steven Spielberg’s The Goonies (1985).
The film follows a band of boys from the “Goon Docks,” an Astoria, Oregon neighborhood, in a desperate race to save their homes from demolition.
The boys discover an old Spanish map that points them to the legendary treasure of One-Eyed Willie, a 17th-century pirate. It’s the ultimate adventure tale, and Mama Fratelli the ultimate nasty adversary.
Anne truly terrified her 10-year-old costar Jeff B. Cohen (“Chunk”) by growling, “Put that kid’s hand in the blender and hit puree.”
Sean Astin (“Mikey”) has a much more pleasant memory of Anne and Logan sitting outside one of the tiny dressing room cottages—”[they] were like gnome houses or Oompa Loompa cottages”—drinking Bloody Marys and watching the sun go down.
I just remember thinking, ‘That is so cool.’ For a second-generation actor to see how these older performers would honor the end of the day, I just loved it. That was a great moment.
Not long after The Goonies wrapped, Anne developed a chronic sore throat, but ignored it. Then she felt the lump: “. . .I was terrified. I wouldn’t go to a doctor. Finally, Logan got me to go.”
It was cancer. Anne continued working through radiation treatments, guest starring on Hill Street Blues and Knight Rider. “I felt so lucky I had the strength to continue.”
But the treatments failed. Her surgeon told her that he might have to remove part of her tongue and effectively end her career.
Anne underwent surgery on her 57th birthday. The surgeon reconstructed her tongue with tissue from her thigh. She couldn’t talk for two weeks.
Finally, the surgeon removed the tube from her throat and told her to “say something.” Anne replied, “What do you want me to say?” and burst into tears. She could talk.
Enter Danny DeVito, who’d screened one actress after the other to play the title role in Throw Momma From The Train, his directorial debut.
He was getting so desperate, his friends started volunteering their mothers.
Finally, his casting people found Anne, and he “knew immediately that Momma had walked into my life.”
Treatments and surgery left Anne with stiffness, a speech impediment, and a drooling condition she dismissed as “manageable. I’m just happy to be alive.”
Anne used her condition to craft a character so memorable, the Academy nominated her for Best Supporting Actress.
Anne’s cancer recurred in April 1988 and she passed away in August at age 59. She appeared in four movies released after her death, including Scrooged with Bill Murray.
Anne Ramsey attained cult status for her roles, especially The Goonies—a film that encourages us to believe in our wildest dreams.
We lost her far too soon, but she lived her dream right to the end.
Are you a closet Goonie? What’s your wildest dream?
(Me, I’m still going to be a National Geographic explorer. Or even better, an independent geographic explorer.)
- Anne on IMDB
- People Magazine: Throw Momma Finally Lands Anne Ramsey on the Fast Track
- Philly.com: Anne Ramsey, 59; Actress Starred In ‘Throw Momma From The Train’
- The source of that wonderful quote by Sean Astin has been taken down. The original URL was http://vip.usaweekend.com/2010/11/sean-astin-still-a-goonie-25-years-later/.
Mama Fratelli as a Cult Figure
Post image from GremlinDog.com; thank you to Michael Guerrieri for calling Anne to my attention.