SPOTLIGHT December 2020: Eda Reiss Merin, Actress, Activist and inspiration for AWFJ’s EDA Awards

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallThe Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ EDA Awards, presented annually during awards season and at various festivals during the year, are currently in their 14th year, and are well known to the film industry for categories honoring female filmmakers, along with the more general award categories that are presented by the Academy and other movie awards organizations. The EDA Awards are well known, but many industry people — including some who’ve received them — don’t know much about their name. Why EDA? Since December sees AWFJ in full awards season activism, this is a good time to share the EDA story. Hence our December SPOTLIGHT is focused on actress and activist Eda Reiss Merin.

WHO IS EDA?

AWFJ’s EDA Awards are named after Eda Reiss Merin (1913-1998), a character actress whose glorious career as a thespian in film, theater, radio, and television spanned more than 60 years, and included appearances in many beloved movies, favorite radio and television shows and legendary theatrical productions. EDA was also one of the organizers of AFTRA, a founding member whose union card number was 00012. She was an acting teacher and coach, and a long-standing member of AMPAS.

And, she is the mother of Alliance of Women Film Journalist founder and president Jennifer Merin, whose suggestion that the organization’s annual awards be named for EDA was unanimously approved by AWFJ’s founding members in 2007, the first year of our awards presentations.

BECOMING EDA

Eda was born in New York City on July 31, 1913, as Clarissa Dorothea Helena, names chosen by her eldest sister. At the age of 16, she quit her studies as a biology major at New York’s Hunter College (where she’d been given early admission at age 15) to study acting. She was invited to join New York’s legendary Group Theater, working her way up from apprentice to a full member of the company, where she worked with Harold Clurman, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and other notables, appearing on Broadway and in the road companies of their productions. She was also a member of the ensemble at Hedgerow, the famous summer theater founded by Jasper Deeter, and at the Provincetown Playhouse.

She’d changed her professional name to Eda Reiss, a combination of her mom’s first and maiden names, before she met Jennifer’s father, Sam Merin, a playwright and theatrical press agent who also ‘doctored’ Broadway scripts and punched up screenplays for the Marx Brothers. “I don’t know that I ever knew how they met, but she’d been dating Lee J. Cobb and ended that relationship when she met my Father. They fell in love instantly, got married very quickly, and moved into an apartment on West 53 Street, where MoMA now stands.”

Sadly, Sam died while Eda was pregnant with Jennifer. “He had an appendectomy and they didn’t check his blood for clotting. A clot formed in his pulmonary artery and he was gone. Mom was in a state of shock. She moved back home with her parents for the rest of her pregnancy. Soon after I was born, she began acting again — radio dramas and series like The Shadow and The Goldbergs. She joined Broadway touring companies, always bringing me along with my nanny,” Jennifer says.

BROUGHT TO HOLLYWOOD BY BERTOLD BRECHT

Mother and daughter moved to Hollywood when Eda was summoned by Charles Laughton and Bertolt Brecht to play Mrs Sarti in the US premiere production of Brecht’s Galileo in 1947. “I was a toddler, and wasn’t particularly welcome at the theater, so I was left in the care of my babysitter, Jay Silverheels, before he became Tonto in the Lone Ranger. Years later, Mom told me that Joe Losey, the director, had wanted a ‘name’ instead of Mom to play Mrs. Sarti, and was constantly bullying her, but Laughton stood up for her as her champion and on one occasion, took Mom aside and told her, “Edie darling, you know you really aren’t fully endowed as an actress until a director has made you cry.” She imitated him when she told me the story. It was really good. I made her tell me again.”

HOLLYWOOD, ROUND ONE

After Galileo, Eda remained in Hollywood, getting brilliant reviews for her appearance in Brecht’s The Private Life of the Master Race, playing Mary Magdalene in The Pilgrimage Play and many other theatrical productions. She was a member of the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre, a politically active theatrical group formed largely by thespians, directors and playwrights who’d belonged to the Group Theater in New York. Many of her close friends and colleagues’ careers were disrupted by the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Hollywood inquisition. Eda was never called to appear before HUAC, but lived in fear of possible black listing. She never forgot who named names, and she never forgave them.

EDA preferred performing in live theater, but most of her work in Hollywood during the 1940s and 50s was in motion pictures and television. She did a lot of live TV dramas, including the Schlitz Playhouse, DuPont Show of the Month and Robert Herridge Theater, among others. She was directed by Otto Preminger, Nick Ray, Joseph Mankiewicz and other Hollywood titans in films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, No Way Out, The Flying Leathernecks, Don’t Bother to Knock. Viva Zapata, Lili, Tonight We Sing and numerous others (many of which are not included in her credits on IMDb).

Napping on set of KNOCK ON ANY DOOR

When Eda went on location, Jennifer was put in boarding school, sent back East, or stayed with Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on TV’s M*A*S*H) and his wife Eileen and their four sons in Encino. “She was a single mom and supported us with her income from acting. She worked steadily, but like most actors, she had a day job — she and Jane Baker (screenwriter Hal Smith’s wife) partnered to conduct market research surveys for Young & Rubicam and other large firms, creating flexible job opportunities for unemployed actors who needed to supplement their income. Win-win! Young & Rubicam offered Eda a high-paying executive job in Market Research, but she turned it down so she could continue acting,” says Jennifer.

A NEW YORK INTERLUDE

In the late 50s, Eda relocated back to New York to be closer to family. During the 1960s, her career focus was primarily on theater, and she appeared on Broadway in Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, and A Far Country, among others and in Off-Broadway productions of Tower Beyond Tragedy and Jean Genet’s The Balcony, among others. She also guest starred in regional theater productions of the classics and new plays at Washington DC’s Arena Stage, Boston’s Charles Playhouse, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, the Cincinnati Playhouse, and in other cities, and played in summer stock at Williamstown, Catholic University’s Olney Theater, Cambridge Drama Festival and others. During this period, she had recurring roles on several soap operas that paid for Jennifer’s orthodondistry and college tuition.

HOLLYWOOD, ROUND TWO

Early in the 1970s, Eda moved back to Hollywood, where lived and worked for the rest of her life. She worked steadily as a character actress guest starring on TV action shows, sitcoms and dramas including Charlie’s Angels, Police Story, Baretta, The White Shadow, Family Ties, Cagney & Lacey, Night Court, Hill Street Blues, Mr. Belvedere, Dream On, The Wonder Years, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, ER, St. Elsewhere, Amazing Stories, Murder She Wrote and the list goes on. And on.

She also appeared in many memorable movies, including Mel Brook’s To Be or Not To Be, The Frisco Kid and 1984’s Ghostbusters, in which she played Rick Moranis’s neighbor who gets spooked by a ghost in the hallway. In 1989’s Turner & Hooch, she is Mrs. Remington who gives treats to a slobbering canine. The pooch is the lone eye witness to a murder and is in the care of Tom Hanks, who plays a cop.

Eda was also a Disney voice, playing Orrdu in Disney’s notorious 1985 animated film The Black Cauldron and was the voice of the wicked witch in Disneyland’s Snow White ride.

Eda in GHOSTBUSTERS

However, Eda left her biggest mark on pop culture in the ‘90s as Mrs. Sturak, the mean-spirited title character in the 1991 comedy hit Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter is Dead. She described her role as ‘the babysitter from hell,’ and had a lot of fun spitting commands to her five charges, whom she addressed as “little maggots,” issuing threats like “I’ll make your life a living hell” and declaring that “TV rots your brain.” That is until she meets her maker and the eldest “maggot” (Christina Applegate) takes over overseeing her siblings in the adult-less household.

During HBO’s first run of Babysitter, Eda, then in her 70s, was sent by the cable channel on a promotional tour across the US, with press conferences and fan meet and greets set up in various cities. Jennifer, who went along as a chaperone, recalls that Eda, frequently surrounded on the street by fans who recognized her as “the Babysitter,” at one point turned to her and said, “I don’t get it. Why didn’t they do this when I played Clytemnestra or Lady Macbeth?”

Eda in DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD

“That was typical of Eda,” says Jennifer. “She didn’t seek stardom and she actually shied away from celebrity. She just absolutely loved acting, loved the work. She made the most of any role she was given, but — to be honest — loved playing intensely dramatic characters the best. She enjoyed great friendships with other actors, and she always had great stories to tell about her experiences — not gossipy stuff, just terrific personal insider stories like what had happened with Sir Charles Laughton and Galileo.”

EDA’S LEGACY

Eda died in Hollywood in 1998, but thanks to movie rereleases and reruns of classic TV series, her performances live on. Jennifer says she’s had the pleasure of frequently catching glimpses of Eda on small screens, and she’s often been pleasantly surprised while traveling abroad to hear Eda speaking Japanese or French or Swahili in a dubbed version of one show or another, and is aways delighted when someone reacts to her mention of Eda’s performance in one movie or another with a “That’s your mother? Awesome!”

Eda as Maria in HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN

Recently, Netflix was running the full five seasons of Highway to Heaven and Jennifer wanted to watch an episode in which Eda played one of her favorite TV roles, that of a Russian émigré named Maria Malinoff, who’d been separated from her infant son who’d grown up to be a big-shot commissar (Nehemiah Persoff) in the Soviet Union. Maria’s dying wish is to see her son again, and the angel Jonathan (Michael Landon) brings them together in a very moving deathbed reunion during which Maria opens her bullying and bureaucratic son’s heart, convincing him to negotiate for arms reduction with more love and less hate. Jennifer didn’t know in which season Eda’s episode was aired, so decided to watch the series from the beginning until she found her Mom. After hours of watching two seasons, one episode after another, Jennifer fell asleep. She was awakened, she says, by the sound of Eda’s voice. She glanced at the clock and it was exactly 12:01 a.m. on July 31 — Eda’s birthday.

WHY WE CHOSE HER:

Eda Reiss Merin lived the #actorslife long before that lifestyle was a hashtag. She never saw her name flash across the big screen above a film’s title, She didn’t accumulate vast wealth from residuals. She wasn’t addicted to bling and swag. She never won an Oscar, although she was a long-standing member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and loved voting to honor her peers with golden statuettes. And, IMDb’s careless errors in her bio (for starters, she was never known as Edith, nor was she married to either Richard Shire Strauss or Charles Hirshman) and omission of many of her credits show a lack of respect. But, for 60 plus years, Eda worked steadily as an actress, always making supportive characters memorable and turning cameos into classic gems. As a member of three actors unions — one of which she’d helped to establish — she actively advocated for actors’ rights for fair wages, better working conditions and better representation of women. She joined actor-created and managed workshops and theater groups, and supported her peers by creating flexible day jobs that sustained them during periods when acting jobs were scarce. She taught acting and generously gave of her time and talent to act in student films. Eda’s career exemplifies accomplishment and we are proud to honor her by presenting EDA Awards in recognition of the outstanding achievements of others in the show business arts and crafts she so loved. — Susan Wloszczynaawfjspotlightsmallsmall
 
 
EDITOR’S NOTE: Eda’s Highway to Heaven episode is titled Summit. It can be streamed for free on YouTube, courtesy of FilmRise Cinematheque.

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Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for RogerEbert.com. Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to RogerEbert.com, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.