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Jo Van Fleet

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Jo Van Fleet
Jo Van Fleet c.1955
Catherine Josephine Van Fleet[1]

(1915-12-29)December 29, 1915
DiedJune 10, 1996(1996-06-10) (aged 80)
Years active1944–1986
William G. Bales
(m. 1946; died 1990)

Jo Van Fleet (December 29, 1915[1] – June 10, 1996) was an American stage, film, and television actress. During her long career, which spanned over four decades, she often played characters much older than her actual age. Van Fleet won a Tony Award in 1954 for her performance in the Broadway production The Trip to Bountiful, and the next year she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her supporting role in East of Eden.[2]

Early life and training


Josephine Kay Van Fleet/Catherin J VanFleet was born in 1915 in Oakland, California, the younger of two daughters of Michigan native Roy H. Van Fleet and Indiana native Elizabeth "Bessie" Catherine (née Gardner).[3][4] Her father Roy worked for the railroads, but died in 1919 of a streptococcus throat infection which was lanced, inadvertently spreading the disease throughout his body. Federal census records show that by age five Josephine, her 18-year-old sister Corinne, and their widowed mother were living in Oakland with Bessie's parents, Ralph and Mary Gardner.[5] To help support herself and her two daughters at her parents' home, Bessie worked as a "sales lady" in an Oakland dry goods store.[5]

While she had an early interest in stage productions, "Jo" graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1936, focusing on a variety of subjects, and then spent several years as a high school teacher in Morro Bay, California. She continued her theatrical training in a graduate program at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California.[6] She moved after her graduation from her masters program to New York City, where she continued her training with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.[6][7]



In 1944, Van Fleet began her professional stage career and immediately distinguished herself in the role of Miss Phipps in the production of Uncle Harry at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.[8][9] Two years later, in New York, she distinguished herself as well on Broadway by her performances as Dorcas in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale; and yet again, in 1950, as Regan opposite Louis Calhern in King Lear.[2] She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1954 for her portrayal of Jessie Mae Watts in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, costarring Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint.

Van Fleet, in her Oscar-winning role, in East of Eden (1955).

Despite her early successes on the stage, Van Fleet continued to refine her skills in the late 1940s and early 1950s by studying with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York.[8] Kazan in 1952 directed her in the play Flight to Egypt and the following year in Camino Real. In 1954 he encouraged her to work in films in Hollywood. There Kazan cast her in his screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955) for Warner Bros. In that production—her film debut—Van Fleet portrays Cathy Ames, the mother of James Dean's character.[2] Her performance, which was widely praised by critics, won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her subsequent film work was steady through 1960 and included films such as The Rose Tattoo (1955), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), The King and Four Queens (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Her career, however, did not progress as she had hoped. Her friend and mentor, Kazan, personally experienced her frustrations: "'Jo stagnated, and, since she knew it, was bitter. And as she became bitter, she became more difficult.'"[2] In an interview for the Los Angeles Times after her Oscar-winning performance in East of Eden, Van Fleet openly expressed her concerns "about being typecast in tragic roles".[8]

Van Fleet and Anthony Perkins in the Broadway production Look Homeward, Angel (1957).

In 1958, Van Fleet was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Look Homeward, Angel, in which she played the acquisitive mother of Anthony Perkins' character. Her later films included Wild River (1960), one of the productions in which she played a character far older than her actual age. Only age 44 at the time of Wild River, Van Fleet spent five hours every morning getting into make-up for her role as Ella, the 89-year-old matriarch of the Garth family.[2] Some of her other notable roles include the Wicked Stepmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1965), Paul Newman's mother in Cool Hand Luke (1967), and the mother of Peter Sellers's love interest in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968).

Van Fleet's work on television included such series as Naked City, Thriller, Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, and Police Woman. Among her most emotionally charged dramatic performances on television is her portrayal of the bitter, explosive Mrs. Shrike in the 1956 episode "Shopping for Death" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.[10]

Van Fleet's final performance, a brief but "delicious" supporting turn in the 1986 TV adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day,[11] elicited this comment from Washington Post critic Tom Shales:

Jo Van Fleet, who seems even to walk and blink legendarily, has a tiny part and only two small scenes as Mrs. Einhorn, an old woman with two incontinent dachshunds, but what a piquant impression she makes.[12]

Personal life and death


In 1946, Van Fleet married William G. Bales, whose career in modern dance included work as a performer, choreographer, professor at Bennington College, and the founding Dean of Dance at the State University of New York at Purchase, N. Y. They remained together until his death in 1990.[6] The couple had one child, Michael Bales.[13]

In February 1960, in recognition of her career in the motion-picture industry, as well as her work on stage and in television, Van Fleet was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[14] It is located at 7010 Hollywood Boulevard.[14] Politically, she was a Democrat, and in the 1952 United States presidential election she supported Adlai Stevenson.[15]

Van Fleet died at age 80 from undisclosed causes in New York City at Jamaica Hospital in Queens. Her body was cremated and her ashes were returned to her family.[16]


Year Title Role Notes
1955 Max Liebman Spectaculars Aunt Dete Episode: "Heidi"
Star Tonight Irene Rankin Episode: "Concerning Death"
East of Eden Kate Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles
The Philco Television Playhouse Shirley Episode: "A Business Proposition"
The Rose Tattoo Bessie
I'll Cry Tomorrow Katie Roth
1956 Kraft Theatre Ma Episode: "Snapfinger Creek"
The King and Four Queens Ma McDade
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Mrs. Shrike Season 1 Episode 18: "Shopping for Death"
1957 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Kate Fisher
This Angry Age Madame Dufresne
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Anna Kaminsky Season 3 Episode 6: "Reward to Finder"
1958 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse Mrs. Lombe Episode: "The Crazy Hunter"
1959 Alcoa Theatre Mrs. Weiss Episode: "30 Pieces of Silver"
G.E. True Theatre Miss Wanda Kelsey Episode: "Disaster"
1960 Wild River Ella Garth
Play of the Week Canina Episode: "Volpone"
1961 The DuPont Show of the Month Callie Episode: "The Night of the Storm"
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Molly Drake Season 6 Episode 34: "Servant Problem"
Thriller Mrs. Cissy Hawk Episode: "The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk"
1962 Naked City Dr. Anna Chaloupka Episode: "The Night the Saints Lost Their Halos"
Frontier Circus Amelia Curtis Episode: "The Courtship"
1963 Route 66 Hazel Quine Episode: "The Stone Guest"
77 Sunset Strip Jane Patterson Episode: "Don't Wait for Me"
1964 Summer Playhouse Velma Clarke Episode: "Satan's Waitin'"
Kraft Suspense Theatre Hildy Hesse Episode: "The World I Want"
1965 Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella Stepmother TV movie
1966 The Virginian Lee Calder Episode: "Legacy of Hate"
1967 Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre Emily Cooper Episode: "Verdict for Terror"
Cool Hand Luke Arletta
1968 I Love You, Alice B. Toklas Mrs. Fine
1969 The Wild Wild West Amelia Bronston Episode: "The Night of the Tycoons"
80 Steps to Jonah Nonna
1970 Mannix Alexandra Pulvarenti Episode: "One for the Lady"
Mod Squad Annie Crabtree Episode: "'A' is for Annie"
Bonanza Amy Wilder Episode: "The Trouble with Amy"
1971 Great Performances Clara Episode: "Paradise Lost"
Bonanza Miss Ellen Dobbs Episode: "The Stillness Within"
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight Big Momma
Medical Center Margaret Episode: "Martyr"
1972 The Family Rico Mama Rico TV movie
1973 Medical Center Leah Episode: "Time of Darkness"
Satan's School for Girls Headmistress TV movie co-produced by Aaron Spelling
1976 The Tenant Madame Dioz
1977 Police Woman Irini Karabetas Episode: "The Buttercup Killer"
1980 Power Mother Vanda TV movie
1986 Seize the Day Mrs. Einhorn TV movie


  1. ^ a b "The Birth of Cathrin Vanfleet [sic]", online database of California birth records, 1905-1995; californiabirthindex.org. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e Vallance, Tom. "Obituary: Jo Van Fleet", The Independent (London), June 20, 1996. Retrieved November 21, 2013.
  3. ^ "Indiana Marriages, 1780-1992", original registration, Roy H. Van Fleet to Elizabeth Catherine Gardner, Goshen, Indiana, 1 June 1898; archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. FamilySearch.
  4. ^ "California Birth Index, 1905-1995", "Catherine J Vanfleet", 29 December 1915; registration database, Alameda, California Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento; archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch.
  5. ^ a b "The Fourteenth Census of the United States Census: 1920", copy of original enumeration page, Josephine Van Fleet in household of Ralph W. Gardner, Oakland, Alameda, California, January 6, 1920; citing ED 145, sheet 8A, line 16, family 181, NARA microfilm, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
  6. ^ a b c Gussow, Mel. "Jo Van Fleet, 81, an Actress Who Portrayed Proud Women", obituary, The New York Times, June 11, 1996, p. B-12; subscription required for archival access. Retrieved July 21, 2020.
  7. ^ "Jo Van Fleet; Obituary", The Times (London), June 14, 1996, p. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers (Ann Arbor, Michigan); subscription access through The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
  8. ^ a b c "Jo Van Fleet, Award-Winning Actress", obituary, Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1996, p. 22. ProQuest.
  9. ^ "Show Time in the Downtown Theaters/STAGE/National—'Uncle Harry' at 8:30 p.m."], The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), August 17, 1944, p. 5. ProQuest.
  10. ^ To view a video excerpt of Van Fleet's cited performance, see "The Accident Prone 'Shopping For Death'|Hitchcock Presents", originally uploaded May 3, 2019 on YouTube (San Bruno, California). Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  11. ^ Rosenberg, Howard (May 1, 1987). "TV Review: Robin Williams Seizes Bellow's 'Day'". The Los Angeles Times. p. 22. "There are also some delicious cameos by Jo Van Fleet and William Hickey." Retrieved March 7, 2022.
  12. ^ Shales, Tom (May 2, 1987). "Robin Williams Seizes the Day". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 7, 2022.
  13. ^ "OSCAR-WINNING ACTRESS JO VAN FLEET DIES AT 81". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved October 30, 2023.
  14. ^ a b "Jo Van Fleet", ceremony February 8, 1960, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles, California. Retrieved July 21, 2020.
  15. ^ "Motion Picture's Christmas Toy Party". Motion Picture and Television Magazine, November 1952, Vol. 84, No. 5; page 33.
  16. ^ Wilson, Scott (September 16, 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3d ed.). McFarland. p. 769. ISBN 978-1476625997.