Anne Ramsey: a salute to an 80s movie hero

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Anne Ramsey sprung to fame late in her career courtesy of The Goonies and Throw Momma From The Train – and her work very much lives on.

At the start of the 1970s, Anne Ramsey finally got her break into screen acting. She was already in her early 40s when she picked up her first screen credit, a small character role in 1971’s The Sporting Club, and in the years that followed she’d take on many similar parts on both television and the big screen. Most of the films are rarely spoken about, but there were a few high profile productions, including Any Which Way You Can and the original Fun With Dick And Jane.

But there was little to suggest the impact she’d have in the 1980s with the collection of character roles she picked up in the decade before. Because it was in the second half of her 50s that Ramsey would suddenly be catapulted to pretty instant fame.

The turning point was an upcoming movie by the name of The Goonies, that Steven Spielberg planned to produce and Richard Donner was signed up to direct. As you probably know, The Goonies follows a bunch of youngsters following an old treasure map in the hope of finding the riches to save their parents’ home. And along the way, they come up against a family criminal gang: the Fratellis.

The villain of The Goonies then is the fearsome Mama Fratelli, and when Ramsey was cast in the role, she soon set about making it memorable. Members of the film’s young ensemble have admitted in the past to being terrified of her on set, in particular Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk. Furthermore, at Donner’s insistence, she wasn’t averse to giving her screen son – Robert Davi – a slap to provoke a reaction.

Yet in real life, Ramsey was a hard-working actor who had battled her way to this point. Happily married to her actor husband Logan Ramsey, it’s telling that a couple of years after The Goonies wrapped she was still in touch with Cohen, who insisted “Anne is always playing these tough guys, but she and Logan are really nice. They’re party animals”.

The Goonies made her feared by its young fans, and it would bring her the brightest spot of fame she’d arguably had in her acting career to that point. But she’d barely get time to enjoy it. She’d been suffering from a sore throat during production of the movie, and was scared to go to a doctor to get it checked out (especially when she then saw a lump in her throat). Once The Goonies had wrapped though, her husband insisted she do, and she got a diagnosis of throat cancer.

At first, it was treated with radiation, and she was able to carry on working. But it became clear that something more drastic was needed, and that surgery was going to be required. Thus, on her 57th birthday, Ramsey had an eight-hour operation, that would see tissue taken from her thigh to reconstruct the part of her tongue that needed to be removed. There was no certainty she’d have her speech after the operation, but in the short term at least, it was a success.

The ramifications for Ramsey were that she’d have some shoulder pain, would have mild drooling, and that she’d now speak in a slightly slurred manner.

Whilst she was going through all of this Danny DeVito was plotting his feature directorial debut. He’d helmed a few TV movies and episodes to this point, but he was developing a feature by the name of Throw Momma From The Train. He was going to star, but he was struggling to find someone to take on the ‘momma’ role in the film.

As he told People magazine, “I was at my wit’s end”. Of the casting search he said “It had gotten so bad that people were beginning to recommend their own mothers – and I was starting to check them out!”.

Then his casting team suggested Anne Ramsey to him. It proved to be the project’s eureka moment. “I knew immediately that Momma had walked into my life”, DeVito said.

Ramsey, in spite of dealing with the impact of her surgery, threw herself into the role. It was nonetheless a struggle, and oftentimes she was in intense pain throughout the shoot. Nonetheless, she got to the end of it, in spite of requiring further oral surgery whilst filming was going on. She never asked for a day off, and her slurred speech in real life became a part of the character she played on screen.

When the film was ultimately release at the end of 1987, Ramsey’s role in it amounted to around ten minutes in total, yet her impact was sizeable. The film not only went on to be a much-liked hit when it opened on 11th December 1987, it would earn Ramsey significant acclaim. So much so that when the Academy Award nominations were announced early the following year, she picked up a nod for Best Supporting Actress. As you can see in this short interview clip, the ‘acceptance’ meant something to her.

Ramsey was suddenly a much in demand actor, to the point where Bill Murray for one wanted her involved in the film he was working on, Scrooged.

Tragically, though, by the time Scrooged made it into cinemas at the end of 1988 – just a year after the release of Throw Momma From The Train – Anne Ramsey had lost her cancer battle.

She suffered a recurrence of the disease just after the Academy Awards, and whilst she kept on working as long as she could, this time she couldn’t outrun it. She died on August 11th 1988, at the age of just 59. She was remembered by friends and family as the opposite of the fierce characters she’d become known for. She was active with charity work, and regarded as a kind and gentle person. What’s more, she got to get a little bit of limelight just before her time was up.

As this piece is being written, a 35th anniversary re-release of The Goonies is due. That means that a new generation gets to be scared of Mama Fratelli. But also, more importantly, a new generation too get to appreciate the work of Anne Ramsey. She remains very much missed.


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