“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 20, 1917, and raised in Joliet, Illinois. Her parents were John and Ida Mae Totter. John was a linguist who could speak five languages, while Ida had a passion for singing. John later took a job as a Joliet streetcar conductor because he felt he could learn English quickly in that position.
Totter was raised in a strict, moral way within the family’s six-room frame house. She had two brothers, Folger and George, and a sister named Collette. Initially, her father did not approve of her becoming an actress. When she was twelve years old, the circus came to her hometown and she wanted to run away with it to become 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.
Totter’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 High School, Larry Parks, Class of 1932, who went on to play Al Jolson in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949). Totter graduated from Joliet High School in 1936, where she had participated in several school performances and played violin in the school orchestra.
After high school, Totter performed in summer stock shows in Wisconsin and Michigan. Next, she decided to enroll in a dramatic arts school in Chicago, Illinois. However, Totter would never make it to dramatic school. She instead tried out for a part in Ian Keith’s repertory playhouse and got the role.
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 Totter returned to Chicago, she sought work on the radio. She received parts on several radio serials, which were broadcast on different Chicago stations. Totter mainly participated in soap operas, including Painted Dreams, Road of Life, Ma Perkins, and Bright Horizons.
From Chicago, Totter moved to New York and spent two years working on the 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, Totter 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, Totter swam, played tennis, enjoyed horseback riding, and hiked.
In Hollywood, Totter 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).
Totter would return to Joliet at least once a year to visit her parents and brothers. On one visit home, Totter’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 had worked for the Joliet Streetcar Company but had since retired. George, in turn, would visit Totter in California. Publicity for Totter linked Totter to her hometown of Joliet often. While most of her siblings moved to California, her brother, George, stayed in Joliet.
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.
By the early 1950s, the bad girl roles of the noir genre were no longer fashionable as MGM began to work towards creating more family-themed films. Totter was subsequently released from her contract. She was reportedly dissatisfied with her MGM career and agreed to appear in Any Number Can Play (1949) after Clark Gable intervened. After leaving MGM, she worked for Columbia and Fox, but the quality of her films dropped. By the late 1950s, her film career was in decline, though she continued to work steadily in television roles.
While entertaining troops with the USO in Korea, Totter met Dr. Leo Fred. They reconnected when they were in Los Angeles, California, and married. Her brother, Folger, gave her away at her wedding because her father was too sick to attend. Fred would become the assistant dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. The couple stayed married for 42 years until Fred’s death in 1995. They had one child named Mae Lane.
After stepping away from Hollywood to raise a family, Totter actively sought television roles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including shows like Meet McGraw with Frank Lovejoy and The Joseph Cotten Show. 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.
During her childhood, Totter resided at 403 Parks Ave., Joliet, Illinois. 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. It is located at 201 E. Jefferson St., Joliet, Illinois.
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.
Familyl was of deep importance to Totter. Fittingly, Totter’s legacy lives on firmly through her family.
Totter’s granddaughter, Eden Totter, passed along some great information about her grandmother as well as pictures of items that were of significance to her. It is with deep appreciation and sincere gratitude to Totter’s family that I share these photos.
Eden sent along some of her grandmother’s original wedding photos. They feature shots of Totter, as well as shots of Totter 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.
Totter’s family also owns several movie posters, lobby cards, and press photos from the various stages of her career.