Friday, February 19, 2016

Lillian Bronson - The Sweetest Spinster

So often we see character actors on the screen doing their parts with such wonderful finesse and ease that we never stop to think much about the real actor behind the character. They are often not the people that they play onscreen. Lillian Bronson was one of those actors. She portrayed teachers, librarians, devoted secretaries, servants, and other "old maid" roles quite frequently. Each of these characters displayed a quiet gentle nature and all seemed quite lonely and pitiable. The real Lillian Bronson, however, had a large family and was loved by many. She was also known by many, many people outside of the film community when, in 1974, her portrait was painted as a 30ft tall mural and displayed on the Los Angeles freeway. 

Lillian Bronson was born in 1902 in Lockport, New York. Her family was well-to-do since her father designed and built carriages for a living. Ms. Bronson acquired a taste for the stage in her school days when she acted in a high school play. Her English teacher gave her such encouragement that she attended Bryn Mawr and the University of Michigan studying dramatics. Finding a job as an actress was no easy task during the Depression, so she and her sister instead exercised their fingers and opened the Bronson Studio, designing and making toy animals and pillows. 

It was not until the early 1930s that she landed small parts in a handful of Broadway productions including Camille starring Lillian Gish. Then in 1939, it was off to Hollywood. Her first role was in the Deanna Durbin musical First Love where she played a violinist. It was a small uncredited part and, like most character actors, it paved the way for a lifetime of small, but nonetheless important, parts. 

Ms. Bronson specialized in portraying several different kinds of characters, which we have spotlighted below. In the 1940s, during the peak of her career she was making up to twelve films a year. Steady employment for sure! 

Maid/Housekeeper -

Bronson played a wide variety of different occupations on film and, while she didn't have the face or demeanor for your usual maid ( she seemed much too educated ), she found herself portraying domestics quite often. In The Pearl of Death ( 1944 ) she has a brief part as Dr. Harker's housekeeper who plays along with Sherlock Holmes in setting a trap for the Creeper. She also had a part in another Sherlock Holmes entry, Dressed to Kill,  as a minister's wife. 

In Junior Miss ( 1945 ), she was the maid to the surly J.B Curtis.  Ms. Bronson also played maids in The Brighton Strangler ( 1945 ) and Sleep, My Love ( 1948 ). 

Secretary -

Lillian was best in roles that asked for loyal characters. If one had a secretary like Ms. Bronson, you would feel certain that she would be a 100% confidential secretary and would never divulge a secret business deal. 

In Over 21 ( 1945 ) she played Irene Dunne's secretary, helping her organize all of the notes for her latest book. Miss Hammer kept Clark Gable's business papers in order and reminded him of all his appointments in The Hucksters ( 1947 ). He came to trust her judgement in personal matters too. In Here Come the Nelsons ( 1952 ), Bronson played Ozzie Nelson's cheerleading secretary Miss Tompkins, spurring him on to create a winning advertising campaign for a big client. Years later, Miss Bronson played one of the highest secretarial positions in America...that of presidential secretary to Polly Bergen, the first female president, in Kisses for my President ( 1964 ). 

Teacher -

Miss Bronson's gentle and patient nature made her an ideal actress for portraying teachers and librarians too. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ( 1945 ), little Peggy Ann Gardner visits the library and checks out a huge book on medical conditions. Miss Bronson inquires why she would be interested in such a book and the girl replies that she is reading every book in the library and this was the next book on the shelf. Miss Bronson gives her a kindly look and then sneaks in a small book of fairy tales for her to read as well. 

In I've Always Loved You ( 1946 ) she played a music teacher. In Father of the Bride ( 1950 ) she had an uncredited part as a schoolteacher, also invited to Elizabeth Taylor's big wedding. In Room for One More ( 1952 ) she was a teacher pleased with Cary Grant and Betsy Drake's decision to adopt two orphans and give them a welcoming home. 

Spinsters -

If there was one role that Miss Bronson really excelled in, it was playing spinsters. Although she was quite pretty she had the bird-like quality of a timid old maid. In Welcome, Stranger ( 1947 ) she played Miss Lennek, one of the townsfolk who has a sour opinion of the new doctor ( Bing Crosby ) until he wins the townsfolk over. In Family Honeymoon ( 1948 ) she had a large role as Claudette Colbert's maiden sister who handles all the details of her wedding and honeymoon. In The Good Old Summertime ( 1950 ) she was Judy Garland's aunt, another spinster we presume, whom she lives with.

That same year she played one of two sisters who were eager to marry a young William Holden in Father is a Bachelor, and she was one of the regular guests who attended the Catskills resort hotel in MGM's Two Weeks With Love. 

With the advent of television Miss Bronson found herself busier than ever, playing in such shows as Topper, Schiltz Playhouse, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, The Millionaire, The Rifleman, Peter Gunn, Thriller, and Have Gun, Will Travel. Westerns, dramas, comedies...she played in them all. On Perry Mason, she portrayed a female judge in three episodes. In Dragnet, she was a kindly old lady ( see color photo above ). She was the elderly Miss Cooper in the classic Haunted House episode of Leave it to Beaver and, on The Andy Griffith Show, she was Erma Bishop in The Beauty Contest. Her last television appearance was playing Fonzie's motorcycle-riding grandmother on Happy Days. 

Off the screen, Lillian Bronson raised a family which included two step-daughters. One of her daughters married actor James Whitmore, whom Bronson had appeared with in The Next Voice You Hear ( 1950 ) and The McConnell Story ( 1955 ). 

Ironically, Miss Bronson's greatest claim to fame came after she retired from acting. Artist Kent Twitchell was looking for the ideal model for a large mural he was planning on painting. He wanted a woman that resembled and reminded him of his grandmother and, flipping through a Screen Actors Guild catalogue, came across a photo of Miss Bronson. She graciously posed for him during a series of sketches and eventually Twitchell painted the final artwork which overlooked the 101 Freeway in Echo Park. It was the first freeway mural in Los Angeles and was an enormous success with commuters. Lillian Bronson was portrayed as a spry old lady, with her halo of white hair creating an other-worldly effect. The painting was dubbed "The Freeway Lady" and Miss Bronson's kindly face became known to many people who were unaware of her acting past. 

Check out this article about artist Kent Twitchell's painting of the New Freeway Lady, created in 2015. 


  1. I really appreciated learning more about Lillian Bronson. One of my favourite of her "spinster" roles was on "Wagon Train". In "The Grover Allen Story" she was the object of affection of both cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath) and guest star Burgess Meredith. An embarrassment of character actor riches.

    1. I'll have to check that part out! Thanks for commenting, CW.

  2. A super cute lady; I always liked her. There is an ocean of such great gems of the acting trade, and she shone pretty bright. Thanks for writing about her. :)

  3. I loved her on Andy Griffith Show when he awarded her the Miss Mayberry crown. So loveable