“The bad girls were so much fun to play. I wouldn’t have wanted to play Coleen Gray’s good-girl parts.” -Audrey Totter
One of the greatest leading ladies in the film noir genre has to be Audrey Totter. Gifted in playing the “bad girl” roles necessary for this genre, Audrey’s femme fatale appearance and exceptional acting abilities delighted moviegoers throughout noir’s heyday.
Audra Mary Totter was born on December 20th, 1917, and raised in Joliet, Illinois. Her parents were John and Ida Mae Totter. Her father was of Austro-Slovenian descent and came to America to be a priest, while her mother was Swedish American. John, a linguist who could speak five languages, fell in love with Ida and the two married. Ida sang beautifully, but was not a professional singer. Afterwards, John took a job as a Joliet streetcar conductor because he felt he could learn English quickly in that position.
Audrey was raised in a strict, moral way in a six-room frame house in Joliet. She had two brothers, Folger and George, and a sister named Collette. Her father did not approve of her becoming an actress initially. When she was twelve years old, the circus came to her hometown, and she wanted to run away with it to be a performer. Once her father found out, he said that if she promised not to run away and to instead finish her schooling, she could then become an actress.
Audrey’s acting career began in Joliet High School with both the Joliet Y Players and the Richards Street Players. She acted with another graduate of Joliet, Larry Parks, Class of 1932, who went on to play Al Jolson in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949).
Upon graduating from Joliet High School in 1936, where she had participated in several school plays and played violin in the school orchestra. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Audrey’s brother, George, referred to a time when she tried out for the senior play but the teacher thought she would not be able to play the part. George recalled:
“He had a favorite student whom he wanted to get that role. When Audrey came back for a visit years later, she went back to the school and that same teacher saw her. The teacher took Audrey into his classroom and introduced her, saying, ‘I always knew she’d be a star.’ She told me when she heard that she almost vomited in the classroom.”
Audrey performed in summer stock shows in Wisconsin and Michigan. She decided to enroll in a dramatic arts school in Chicago. When she told her parents, they worried about how she would pay for it. Audrey responded that she had gotten a job selling wax.
However, Audrey would never make it to dramatics school. She tried out for a part at Ian Keith’s repertory playhouse and got the role.
In a fan magazine, Audrey recalled the following:
I wanted to act in anything for anyone. And so it wasn’t just stubbornness which made me say no to college and a comfortable existence at home. It was an inner drive which made me certain that, once I’d tried my wings, I would succeed. Selling wax from door to door–my first job when I left my comfortable home–wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind but, when you’re young and fired with faith in yourself and your ability, even selling from door to door has a purpose. This gave me time to make the rounds of the agencies and–to my family’s amazement and my own–I wrote home, a few weeks after I left, with the news I’d been cast for a nice part in a Chicago play entitled, The Copperhead, with Ian Kieth.
Totter began her professional acting career in Chicago in the late 1930s, receiving small roles in three plays and a more substantial role in My Sister Eileen. As a result, she toured the country with the show.
When Audrey returned to Chicago, she sought work on the radio. Audrey received parts on several radio serials which were broadcast on Chicago stations. She played in soap operas, including Painted Dreams, Road of Life, Ma Perkins, and Bright Horizons.
From Chicago, Audrey moved to New York and spent two years working on stage and radio. Soon after, she would relocate to Hollywood to work for MGM, where she was signed to a seven-year contract. She made her film debut in Main Street After Dark (1945) and established herself as a popular female lead in the 1940s. Although she appeared in various film genres, she became most widely known to movie audiences in film noir productions.
While in Hollywood, Audrey lived in a modest apartment with her sister, who attended the Patricia Stevens finishing school in the area and later became a medical technician. In addition to acting, Audrey swam, played tennis, went horseback riding, and hiked.
In Hollywood, Audrey enjoyed a string of successes, working in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), The Unsuspected (1947), High Wall (1947), The Saxon Charm (1948), Alias Nick Beal (1949), The Set-Up (1949), Any Number Can Play (1949), and Tension (1950).
By the early 1950s, the bad girl roles of the noir genre were no longer fashionable and as MGM began to work towards creating more family-themed films. Audrey was subsequently released from her contract. She was reportedly dissatisfied with her MGM career and agreed to appear in Any Number Can Play only after Clark Gable intervened. After leaving MGM, she worked for Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox, but the quality of her films dropped. By the late 1950s, her film career was in decline, though she continued to work steadily for television.
While entertaining troops with the USO in Korea, Audrey met Dr. Leo Fred. They got together again when they were in Los Angeles and married. Audrey was married to Dr. Leo Fred, assistant dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. Her brother, Folger, gave her away at her wedding because her father was too sick to attend. The couple stayed married for 42 years, from 1953 to Leo’s death in 1995. They had one child named Mae Lane.
After stepping away from Hollywood to raise a family, Audrey actively appeared in several television roles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including shows like Meet McGraw with Frank Lovejoy and The Joseph Cotten Show. In 1957, she was cast as a woman doctor, Louise Kendall, in the episode “Strange Quarantine” of the NBC western series, The Californians. In 1958, Totter was cast as Martha Fullerton, the widow of a man killed by a gunfighter in the episode “The Empty Gun” of the western series, Cheyenne. Later, she played a boarding house owner in another NBC western series, Cimarron City. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on Perry Mason as defendant Reba Burgess in the title role of “The Case of the Reckless Rockhound.” Totter played the continuing role of Nurse Wilcox from 1972 to 1976 in the CBS television series Medical Center. Her last acting role was in a 1987 episode of CBS’s Murder, She Wrote, with Angela Lansbury.
Totter died of a stroke on December 12, 2013, eight days before her 96th birthday. Upon her death, she was cremated as part of the Neptune Society.
Audrey would return to Joliet at least once a year to visit her parents and brothers. On one particular visit home, Audrey’s brother, Folger, was a recent graduate of Joliet High School, while her brother, George, was married and employed as a chemist by Armour & Co. Her father worked for the Joliet Streetcar Company and had since retired. George, in turn, would visit Audrey in California.
In a fan magazine, Audrey reflected:
My mother and dad moved to Los Angeles last Christmas, partly because I could so seldom get to Joliet. My parents are still my best friends and, when I look around at the relationships between my friends and their parents, I’m eternally grateful that my breaking away from home was accomplished in such a way that there has never been any ill feeling between us.
During the period when I was only in Joliet for fifteen-minute intervals, in-between plane flights from New York to Hollywood, my whole family dashed down to say hello and wave goodbye. My brother’s little boy saw me on these rare occasions and about the third time it happened, he asked, ‘Aunt Audrey, do you live in the sky?’
Sometimes I feel as if I really do.
Publicity for Audrey linked her to her hometown of Joliet fairly often. While all of her siblings moved to California, her brother, George, stayed in Joliet until he passed away in his nineties.
I traveled to the lot of her childhood home on 403 Parks Ave., Joliet, IL. While directories list her home being at 303 Parks Ave., the homes in Joliet were renumbered in 1938. The home is privately owned.
Her high school, which is now called Joliet Central High School, still remains. Its outside exists as Audrey would have remembered it, but the inside has undergone extensive renovations.
The school is proud of their restoration of the main doors, as seen behind Audrey in her yearbook photo. Over the years, the doors had been painted over in several different colors. However, these coats of paint kept the doors protected from general wear and tear, allowing for a smooth restoration.
In my research on Audrey, it was easy to note that family was of deep importance to her. Fittingly, Audrey’s legacy lives on firmly through her family.
I have been lucky enough to be in contact with Audrey’s granddaughter, Eden Totter, who passed along some great information to me about her grandmother as well as pictures of items that were of significance to her. It is with deep appreciation and sincere gratitude to Audrey’s family that I share these amazing photos as part of this article.
Eden sent along some of her grandmother’s original wedding photos. They feature shots of Audrey, as well as shots of Audrey with her husband, Leo Fred.
Eden also sent along some more treasures: pictures of the pin that her grandmother wore in Lady in the Lake (1947). Regarding the broach, Eden says:
“The broach is from Lady in The Lake, because her character had the same initials as her–AF–and her married last name was Fred. She kept Totter as her stage name, which is why I made that my stage name, too–for her.”
Eden Totter currently works as a voiceover actress in California
Eden also shared a medallion given to her grandmother from the Far East Command headquarters in 1952. The back of the medallion reads, “To Audrey Totter from Special Services in appreciation for contributing to the entertainment of united nations armed forces personnel in Korea.”
The final item that Eden sent along was an antique snow globe that was owned by her grandmother.
Audrey’s family also owns several movie posters, lobby cards, and press photos from the various stages of her career.
After researching Audrey’s life, I was nothing short of inspired. It is clear to see that she was a driven woman with a level head and that she was in complete recognition and control of her talents. She saw purpose in all that she did and took a risk to try out a career in acting because she felt she knew she could succeed–and succeed she did. Best of all, she lived a beautiful and fulfilling life along the way. In closing, Audrey once shared these words about her career during a fan magazine interview:
“I love being Millie of Jackson Heights, I love the villainous-heroine parts I get in the movies, I love the life I lead with its freedom and responsibilities. Using a little good sense, I know any girl can build a happy, wonderful life.”
Upon learning about Audrey’s accomplishments, I can’t help but agree.