Alabama native Lucille Benson (1914-1984) acted in numerous plays, movies, and television shows during a career that began in the 1930s and lasted into the 1980s. She would act in nearly 50 musicals and more than 75 films and television shows. She is best known for portraying older matronly characters with deep southern accents.
Lucille Benson was born Virginia Morris in Scottsboro, Jackson County, on July 17, 1914, to Thomas Andrew Morris and Alberta Kirby Thomas Morris. After her mother died in November 1915, Benson was adopted by her maternal aunt Elma Lee Kirby Benson and her husband John Bernard Benson, who already had one daughter. Her uncle was a prominent member of the community involved in a variety of businesses and served in the Alabama State Senate. Benson graduated from Jackson County High School, where she was the class valedictorian. After high school, she attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Montgomery County, and later Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she studied drama. Benson then taught school in Scottsboro briefly before she decided to move to New York to pursue an acting career in the late 1930s.
After performing in several smaller productions, Benson began appearing on Broadway and was a cast member in several long-running productions. She was part of the original cast in the play Good Night, Ladies, which opened in January 1945 and the musical The Day Before Spring in November 1945 as well as the play Hotel Paradiso in April 1957, also starring Bert Lahr and Angela Lansbury, and the musical Walking Happy in November 1966. She was nominated for several Tony Awards. Benson was an alternate performer in Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath in February 1950. She appeared in Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending in Miami, Florida’s, noted and historic Coconut Grove Playhouse. She also had roles in The Music Man, Huckleberry Finn, Period of Adjustment, The Doughgirls, Happy Birthday, Walking Happy, and As the Girls Go.
In 1952, Benson appeared in an episode of the television drama show Armstrong Circle Theatre, embarking on a long career in television. She performed throughout the United States and in 1968 gained notice while performing in the play Little Me in Las Vegas for three months alongside stars Donald O’Connor and Yvonne De Carlo. The notice she garnered for her performance led Benson to take her acting career to Hollywood, where she gained fame as a character actor known for her deep southern accent. Her debut film role was playing the character Beulah Binnings in The Fugitive Kind (1960), which starred Marlon Brando. Benson went on to perform in many more movies over the next 20 years. Some of her most notable roles included the character Rose in Amy (1981), Mrs. Elrod in Halloween II (1981), and Lady at Snakerama in Duel (1971).
Benson became best known for playing older women, especially mother or aunt figures, as in Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) starring Robert Redford and Lauren Hutton, and WUSA (1970), starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and with a smaller role for fellow Alabamian Wayne Rogers. She also starred in Mame (1974) as Mother Burnside alongside Lucille Ball in the title role in her last big-screen film. One of Benson’s later screen roles was Gas Mama in the 1979 ensemble cast comedy 1941 directed by Steven Spielberg.
Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Benson was also a fixture on nighttime television, appearing in many of the most popular television shows of the era. Again, her characters featured her trademark southern accent, and many of them were small-town characters. She appeared in multiple hit television shows including The New Andy Griffith Show (1971), Bonanza (1972), Emergency! (1973-1974), The Waltons (1976), Wonder Woman (1978), The Wonderful World of Disney (1978-1982), Little House on the Prairie (1979), The Dukes of Hazard (1980), Bosom Buddies (1981-1982) and The Love Boat (1981). Her last acting job was in the comedy series Alice from 1982-1983, though she did not share screen time with fellow Alabamian Polly Holliday.
Benson died at the age of 69 from liver cancer on February 17, 1984, in her hometown of Scottsboro and was buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery there.