She is most widely known for her portrayal of "Granny" on the long-running TV series The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–1971), for which she was nominated for Emmy Awards for "Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Series (Lead)" in 1963 and 1964.
Early life and career
Some reports claim that Irene Ryan, who was born Irene Noblette, was born in San Francisco, California. She was born to an American father and an Irish immigrant mother.
Before her role as "Granny" on The Beverly Hillbillies, Ryan was an established vaudeville, radio, and movie actress, though not as well known prior to her television stint. Ryan and her first husband, writer-comedian Tim Ryan, were popular in vaudeville. Their type of double act, known in show business as a "Dumb Dora" routine and epitomized by George Burns and Gracie Allen, had the dizzy woman saying silly things and frustrating the straight-man "boyfriend" or husband." The couple, billed as "Tim and Irene," had their own series of short subjects in the 1930s for Educational Pictures, and later worked in feature films for Monogram Pictures.
After splitting with Tim Ryan, Irene Ryan toured with comedian Bob Hope and made regular appearances on his radio show. She continued to work in motion pictures of the late 1940s and early 1950s, generally playing fussy or nervous women. Ryan made her first television sitcom appearance on Where's Raymond?, starring musical-comedy actor Ray Bolger, in 1954.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–1971)
In 1962, Ryan was cast as Daisy "Granny" Moses, the matriarch of the Clampett clan, in the CBS-TV comedy series The Beverly Hillbillies. The sitcom ran on the CBS network from 1962 to 1971, and after the show ended Ryan established the Irene Ryan Acting Competition, providing annual scholarships for promising student actors. According to Filmways Publicist Ted Switzer, series creator and producer Paul Henning had decided to cast Bea Benaderet as Granny; however, when Ryan read for the role, “with her hair tied back in a bun and feisty as all get out, she just blew everyone away.” Al Simon (executive producer) and Henning immediately said: “That’s Granny.” Later when Benaderet saw Ryan’s tryout, she agreed. Benaderet was then cast as cousin Pearl.
In 1972 Ryan helped to create and also starred in the role of Berthe in the Bob Fosse-directed Broadway musical Pippin, in which she sang the number "No Time At All"., which mentions, "a man who calls me Granny". In 1973, Ryan was posthumously nominated for Broadway's 1973 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Musical) for her performance in the musical. After Ryan's passing, the role of Berthe was assumed by veteran actress Dorothy Stickney for the remainder of Pippin's Broadway run.
Tim and Irene Ryan were married in 1922 and divorced in 1942. Irene married her second husband, Harold E. Knox, in 1946; they divorced in 1961.
Ryan was a distant cousin of the actress Mary Castle, who appeared with Jim Davis in the syndicated western series Stories of the Century.
Ryan died on April 26, 1973, several days after she had suffered a stroke during a performance of the musical Pippin on Broadway. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor some time previously, but reportedly was never made aware of it. Her friend and fellow Beverly Hillbillies cast member, Nancy Kulp, had tried to persuade her not to go to New York for the musical. Pallbearers at her funeral included Hillbillies co-stars Buddy Ebsen and Max Baer, Jr., along with Beverly Hillbillies creator Paul Henning. The funeral was also attended by Donna Douglas and others associated with the series. Her body was interred in a mausoleum crypt at the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, California, beside her sister, Anna Thompson.
Having no living relatives, Ryan left more than $1,000,000 estate to fund the Irene Ryan Foundation, which donates scholarships to young theater arts students involved with the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival.