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Tom Ewell; Film, Stage Actor Starred in 'Seven Year Itch'

September 13, 1994|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Ewell, an actor who gravitated to roles as a sardonic everyman and reached his peak of fame opposite Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film "The Seven Year Itch," died Monday. He was 85.

Ewell died at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home in Woodland Hills after a long period of ill health, his wife, Marjorie, said.

Never a handsome man, Ewell expressed surprise when he won the co-starring role with Miss Monroe, triumphing over more popular actors such as Gary Cooper and William Holden.

Although he created the role on Broadway and won a Tony award for it, Ewell said at the time that he was so certain that he would not be asked to reprise his character in the movie that he had rented a house for a vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

"Needless to say," he said, "I'm happy they did choose me."

Ewell played a bedazzled middle-aged man who has a fling with a dumb-blonde upstairs tenant while his wife is away for the summer.

He was standing next to Miss Monroe on location in Manhattan when photographers snapped the famous picture of her with a blast of air raising her white skirt. The widely distributed photograph reportedly angered her husband, Joe DiMaggio, so much that it became one of the events that contributed to their divorce.

Ewell had even been somewhat surprised to land the role on Broadway in 1952, opposite Vanessa Brown as the temptress. He played the smitten leading man to critical acclaim for 730 performances.

In addition to his work on stage and screen, "The Tom Ewell Show," a television situation comedy series, ran for two seasons in the early 1960s.

Ewell was born Yewell Tompkins in Owensboro, Ky., where his family expected him to follow in their footsteps as lawyers or whiskey and tobacco dealers.

His mother, Martine Tompkins, now 105, still lives in nearby Curdsville, Ky.

The young Ewell attended the University of Wisconsin, but quickly became more enamored of dramatics than law.

Despite the Depression, he moved to New York and washed dishes, sold cigars and magazines and operated elevators while looking for work on the stage. His first break came in 1934, with a small part and a short run. As wry as many of his roles, Ewell often joked that he held a Broadway record--28 flops in 14 years.

Nevertheless, Ewell was well established on the stage--and described by one critic as "wonderfully hesitant, timid and desperate"--before he tried Hollywood. He appeared briefly in the 1940 film "They Knew What They Wanted." But his screen breakthrough did not occur until after four years in the Navy during World War II, the Broadway hits "Apple of His Eye" in 1946 and "John Loves Mary" in 1947, and a Los Angeles Civic Light Opera revival of "Roberta" in 1946.

The breakthrough film was "Adam's Rib" in 1949, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in which Ewell played the husband of Judy Holliday.

Among Ewell's other films were "A Life of Her Own" in 1950, "Up Front" in 1951, "Lost in Alaska" in 1952, "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" and "The Girl Can't Help It" in 1956, "State Fair" in 1962, "Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?" in 1970, "They Only Kill Their Masters" in 1972 and "The Great Gatsby" in 1974.

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