Oscar Actors: Van Fleet, Jo–Background, Career, Awards, Cumulative Advantage

Jo Van Fleet (ne Catherine Josephine Van Fleet) was born on December 29, 1915 in Oakland, California to Roy Van Fleet and Elizabeth “Bessie” Catherine.

She became famous for playing roles older than her real age in a career that spanned over three decades, during which she won an Oscar and a Tony Award.

Van Fleet established herself as a dramatic actress on Broadway, beginning in 1946 as Dorcas in The Winter’s Tale, and playing Regan in King Lear in 1950.

Tony Award:

She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1954 for her performance as Jessie Mae Watts in Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” costarring Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint.

Supporting Actress Oscar

After her success on the stage, director Kazan brought her to Hollywood.  Kazan, who had directed her on stage in 1952’s Flight to Egypt and 1953’s Camino Real, cast her as Cathy Ames in his film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955), which became her film debut. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.

Her subsequent film work was steady through 1960, and included films such as The Rose Tattoo (1955), I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), The King and Four Queens (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

However, her career did not progress as she had hoped. As mentor Kazan attested: “Jo stagnated, and, since she knew it, she was bitter. And as she became bitter, she became more difficult.”

Second Tony Nomination

In 1958, she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Look Homeward, Angel, in which she played the acquisitive mother of Anthony Perkins’ character.

Her later films included Wild River (1960), during which she spent five hours every day applying wrinkles to play the role of an 89-year-old matriarch (she was only 44).

Other notable roles include the Wicked Stepmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1965), Paul Newman’s mother in Cool Hand Luke (1967), and the mother in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968).


Van Fleet’s work on TV included such series as Naked City, Thriller, Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, and Police Woman.

Among her most acclaimed dramatic performances on TV is her portrayal of the explosive Mrs. Shrike in the 1956 episode “Shopping for Death” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Her last film was “Seize the Day,” in 1986; age 71


Van Fleet was married to choreographer William Bales from 1946 until his death in 1990 (54 years).

Van Fleet died on June 10, 1006 in a Jamaica, Queens hospital from undisclosed causes at the age of 80.

She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to Motion Pictures.

Van Fleet was a Democrat who supported Adlai Stevenson’s campaign during the 1952 presidential election.