Actor Ralph Bellamy, once a portrayer of amiable clods who broke from that stereotype to triumph as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the play "Sunrise at Campobello," died Friday after a film, stage, radio and television career that lasted more than 60 years. He was 87.
Bellamy died at 2:18 a.m. at St. John's Hospital and Health Center, said A. C. Lyles, veteran film producer and a friend of Bellamy's for 53 years. Lyles said Bellamy had been hospitalized earlier this month with a longstanding lung disease.
Bellamy learned to act in Chautauqua and stock troupes during the 1920s, then went to Hollywood to appear in nearly 100 films while continuing to perform on the Broadway stage and on television. He gained his initial reputation by always seeming to lose the girl to the handsomer and wittier leading man.
Perhaps the role that established this image was that of the fatuous Oklahoma millionaire in the 1937 film, "The Awful Truth." Cary Grant took Irene Dunne away from him. Bellamy at least got an Academy Award nomination.
The following year, he lost Carole Lombard to Fred MacMurray in "Fools for Scandal" and Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire in "Carefree."
By 1942, after a dozen years in Hollywood, he happened to see a script in which one of the characters was described as "a charming, naive fellow from the Southwest--a typical Ralph Bellamy type."
"Then and there," wrote the actor in his 1979 book, "When the Smoke Hits the Fan," "I decided to go to New York and find a play."
He did, appearing in the World War II drama, "Tomorrow the World." He scored another stage success in 1945 with "State of the Union" and then in 1949 with "Detective Story."
But it was in Dore Schary's "Sunrise at Campobello" in 1958 that he reached the height of his career. With cigarette holder at a jaunty angle, he won both the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Award for his performance as a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt battling polio.
It was the only one of his big stage roles that he was to re-create in films.
In a 1975 interview, Bellamy said it had not bothered him that other actors were chosen for the movie versions of "Tomorrow the World," "State of the Union" and "Detective Story."
In fact, he said, he was not even certain he should have done "Campobello" on the screen because "acting for the camera is a far different thing than acting to the second balcony."
At that point, he had done 96 films and he said, "I think I'd burn 95 of them." He remembered "The Awful Truth," which director Leo McCarey seemed to improvise without a script, as a lot of fun to make, "but I haven't yet made one I'd really care to be remembered by."
Bellamy said he had never regarded himself as a leading man, "and therefore nobody else seemed to."
Bellamy was born in Chicago, where his father was a successful advertising executive. As a boy, he did not care much for studying, but did become president of the high school drama club.
He said he could not recall when the acting urge struck him, but that it may have taken hold at age 15 when, while working as a bellboy at Balboa Bay during a summer trip to Southern California with his mother, he met silent screen actress Louise Lovely and told her he wanted to be an actor.
She got him a job as an extra in "Wings of Morn," which was being shot there. He was paid $5 for being drenched with a fire hose in a shipwreck scene.
Back in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, he was expelled from high school in his senior year for smoking under the stage. He worked as a soda jerk, as a store clerk and as a fruit picker. But he had the phone number of a man who produced plays for the summer Chautauqua circuit. So he called and said, "This is Ralph Bellamy. I wonder if you have anything for me this season."
He was hired to play the part of the leading man's father in "The Shepherd of the Hills." He was not quite 18 years old. The leading man was 28.
His friend Melvyn Douglas, also a struggling young actor, had gotten a job as the leading man in a Madison, Wis., stock company and managed to get Bellamy on as business and stage manager at $40 a week.
From there, Bellamy acted for various stock companies throughout the Midwest. He went on a Chautauqua tour from town to town along the Mississippi River.
In 1924, Bellamy left Terre Haute, Ind., where he was leading man in a stock company, and went to New York. He thought he was ready for Broadway. Apparently he wasn't. Things got so bad he was down to living on peanuts and water. He recalled in his book that a policeman once saw him stealing a bottle of milk from a doorstep, but turned away out of apparent pity.
It was back to stock--in places like Waterloo, Iowa. He formed his own stock company in Des Moines--with his father putting up the money--and after two seasons moved it to Nashville where it played two more.