Oscar Actors: Winters, Shelley–Background, Career, Awards

Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: Yes; mother singer

Social Class: Middle; father, fashion designer

Education: New School for Social Research; acting


Stage debut:

Broadway Debut: 1941; age 21

Film Debut: 1943; age 23

Oscar Awards: 2 Supporting Actress, 1959, 1965

Oscar Nominations: 2 Oscar nominations

Other Awards: Emmy Award

Career Span: about six decades

Last film: age 80

Politics: Democrat

Marriages: 4 (2 to actors)

Death: 2006; age 85

The turning point in Shelley Winters’ career was in 1947, in George Cukor’s “A Double Life,” in which she played a waitress strangled by Ronald Colman, as a delusional actor. But the film that established her as a dramatic actress was George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun,” in 1951, for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Winters received three additional Oscar nominations, all in the supporting league, winning two: “The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), also by Stevens, and “A Patch of Blue” (1965).

Oscar Nominations: 4

1951: Best Actress, A Place in the Sun
1959: Supporting Actress, The Diary of Anne Frank
1965: Supporting Actress, A Patch of Blue
1972: Supporting Actress, The Poseidon Adventure

Oscar Awards: 2

Supporting Actress in 1959 and in 1965.

In 1951, the winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Vivien Leigh for “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

In 1972, the winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar was Eileen Heckart for “Butterflies Are Free.”

Oscar Negative Impact:

Winning an Oscar might have negative effects on the winner’s stable relationship, especially if the actor is married to another actor.

After winning her first Best Supporting Actress for The Diary of Anne Frank, in 1959, Shelley Winters observed: “I brought my Oscar home and Tony (Franciosa) took one look at it, and I know our marriage was over.” Franciosa had been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in 1957 for Zinneman’s drama, A Hatful of Rain, but he didn’t win.

Shelley Winters was born on August 18, 1920 as Shirley Schrift in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Rose (née Winter), a singer with the Muny, and Jonas Schrift, a designer of men’s clothing.

Her parents (third cousines) were Jewish; her father emigrated from Austria, and her mother was born in St. Louis to Austrian immigrants.

Her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was 9, and she grew up partly in Queens, New York, as well.

As a young woman, she worked as a model. Her sister Blanche Schrift later married George Boroff, who ran the Circle Theatre (now named El Centro Theatre) in Los Angeles. At age 16, Winters relocated to Los Angeles, but later returned to New York to study acting at the New School.

Broadway Debut: 1941

Winters made her Broadway debut in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941), which had a short run. She had a small part in Rosalinda, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus (1942-44) which ran for 611 performances.  Winters first received acclaim when she joined the cast of Oklahoma! as Ado Annie.

Screen Debut: 1943

She received a long term contract at Columbia and moved to Los Angeles. Winters’ first film was an uncredited bit in “There’s Something About a Soldier” (1943) at Columbia. She had another small bit in “What a Woman!” (1943), and a bigger part in a B movie, “Sailor’s Holiday” (1944).

Winters was borrowed by Producers Releasing Corporation for “Knickerbocker Holiday” (1944). Columbia put her small bits in “She’s a Soldier Too” (1944), Dancing in Manhattan (1944), Together Again (1944), Tonight and Every Night (1945), Escape in the Fog (1945), A Thousand and One Nights (1945), and The Fighting Guardsman (1946).

Winters had bit parts in MGM’s Two Smart People (1946), and a series of films for United Artists: Susie Steps Out (1946), Abie’s Irish Rose (1946) and New Orleans (1947).

She had bit parts in Living in a Big Way (1947) and Killer McCoy (1947) at MGM, The Gangster (1947) for King Brothers Productions and Red River (1948).

Turning Point: A Double Life (1947)

Winters first achieved stardom with her breakout performance as the victim of insane actor Ronald Colman in George Cukor’s “A Double Life” (1947). It was distributed by Universal which signed Winters to a long term contract.

She had a supporting role in “Larceny” (1948), then 20th Century Fox borrowed her for “Cry of the City” (1948).

Winters was second-billed in Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) with Howard Duff, and Take One False Step (1949) with William Powell.

Paramount borrowed her to play Mabel in “The Great Gatsby” (1949) with Alan Ladd.

Back at Universal she was in the western “Winchester 73” (1950), opposite James Stewart, a huge hit.

Universal gave Winters top billing in South Sea Sinner (1950). She co-starred with Joel McCrea in Frenchie (1950).

Winters originally broke into Hollywood films as a Blonde Bombshell type, but quickly tired of the role’s limitations. She claims to have washed off her make-up to audition for the role of Alice Tripp, the factory girl, in A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens.

The studios and public were unaware of how serious a craftswoman Winters was. “Although she was in demand as a character actress, Winters continued to study her craft. She attended Charles Laughton’s Shakespeare classes and worked at the Actors Studio, both as student and teacher. She studied in the Hollywood Studio Club, and in the late 1940s, she shared an apartment with another newcomer, Marilyn Monroe.

Her performance in A Place in the Sun (1951), a departure from the sexpot image that Universal Pictures was grooming her, brought Winters her first acclaim, earning her a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.

Winters went to United Artists for He Ran All the Way (1951) with John Garfield and RKO for Behave Yourself! (1951) with Farley Granger.

At Universal she made Meet Danny Wilson (1952) with Frank Sinatra and Untamed Frontier (1952) with Joseph Cotten. She went to MGM for My Man and I (1952) with Ricardo Montalbán.

She performed in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on stage in Los Angeles.

TV Debut: 1954

She made her TV debut in “Mantrap” for The Ford Television Theatre in 1954. At MGM she did Executive Suite (1954) and Tennessee Champ (1954), top billed in the latter.

Winters returned to Universal to appear in Saskatchewan (1954), shot on location in Canada with Alan Ladd, and Playgirl (1954) with Barry Sullivan. She also appeared in a TV version of Sorry, Wrong Number.

Winters travelled to Europe to make Mambo (1954) with Vittorio Gassman who became her husband. She then shot Cash on Delivery (1954) in England.

Winters performed in a version of The Women for Producers’ Showcase then had a key role in I Am a Camera (1955) starring opposite Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey.

More highly acclaimed was Charles Laughton’s 1955 Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish.

At Warner, Winters was Jack Palance’s leading lady in I Died a Thousand Times (1955), then for RKO she co starred with Rory Calhoun in The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955). She was also in The Big Knife (1955) for Robert Aldrich.

Winters returned to Broadway in A Hatful of Rain, in 1955–1956, opposite Ben Gazzara and future husband Anthony Franciosa. It ran for 398 performances.

Girls of Summer (1956-1957) was directed by Jack Garfein and co-starred George Peppard but only ran for 56 performances.

On TV she reprised her Double Life performance in The Alcoa Hour in 1957. She appeared in episodes of The United States Steel Hour, Climax!, Wagon Train, Schlitz Playhouse, The DuPont Show of the Month, and Kraft Theatre.

In 1959 she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Mrs. Van Daan in Stevens’ film adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. She donated her award statuette to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Winters was in demand as a character actor now, getting good roles in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960) and The Young Savages (1961). She received excellent reviews for her performance as the man-hungry Charlotte Haze in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962).

Her final performances included Touch of a Stranger (1990), Stepping Out (1991) with Liza Minnelli, Weep No More, My Lady (1992), The Pickle (1993) for Mazursky, and The Silence of the Hams (1994).

Younger viewers knew her for her autobiographies and for her TV work, in which she usually played a humorous parody of her public persona. In a recurring role in the 1990s, Winters played the title character’s grandmother on the ABC sitcom “Roseanne.”

Her final film roles were supporting ones, such as the restaurant owner and mother of an overweight cook in Heavy (1995) with Liv Tyler and Debbie Harry for James Mangold, an aristocrat in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich, and an embittered nursing home administrator in 1999’s Gideon. She was also in comedies such as Backfire! (1995), Jury Duty (1995), Mrs. Munck (1995), and Raging Angels (1995).

Winters made an appearance at the 1998 Academy Awards telecast, which featured a tribute to Oscar winners past and present including Gregory Peck, Claire Trevor, Jennifer Jones, and Luise Rainer.

As the Associated Press reported, “During her 50 years as a widely known personality, Winters was rarely out of the news. Her stormy marriages, her romances with famous stars, her forays into politics and feminist causes kept her name before the public. She delighted in giving provocative interviews and seemed to have an opinion on everything.” That led to a second career as a writer. Though not a conventional beauty, she claimed that her acting, wit, and “chutzpah” gave her a love life to rival Monroe’s. Her alleged “conquests” included William Holden, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, Errol Flynn, and Marlon Brando.

Marriages: 4 (2 to famous actors)

Winters was married four times. Her husbands were:
Captain Mack Paul Mayer, whom she married on December 29, 1942 in Brooklyn; they divorced in October 1948.

Vittorio Gassman, whom she married on April 28, 1952 in Juarez, Mexico; they divorced on June 2, 1954. They had one child: Vittoria, born February 14, 1953, a physician.

Anthony Franciosa, whom she married on May 4, 1957, and divorced on November 18, 1960.

Hours before her death, Winters married long-time companion Gerry DeFord, with whom she had lived for 19 years.


Winters was a Democrat and attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention. In 1965, she addressed the Selma marchers outside Montgomery on the night before they marched into the state capitol.

Winters in publicity photo, 1950

Winters died at the age of 85 on January 14, 2006, of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Center of Beverly Hills; she had suffered a heart attack on October 14, 2005.