Nearly fifty years ago, Alice Ruyter Drummond '50 arrived in New York City fresh out of Pembroke College, eager to burst on the theater scene after a string of acting successes with Brown's Sock and Buskin drama society. Today Drummond, at seventy, has made good on her dream: her resume lists more than 200 roles in film, theater, and television, as well as a 1970 Tony nomination for her role in the Broadway play The Chinese and Dr. Fish.
The early trajectory of Drummond's career looked more like a slow burn than a fiery burst. A young woman seeking leading stage roles in the early fifties "had to be overwhelmingly pretty," she says. "Nowadays, you can be sort of kooky or strange or off, but I wasn't even that. I was just a nice girl from Pawtucket."
During her first ten years in Manhattan, Drummond took clerical jobs while performing in summer stock in the Midwest and on Nantucket. She wasn't invited to audition for an off-Broadway play until she was almost thirty, but when she finally made it to a tryout, Drummond not only got the part - Anne of Clèves in Herman Gressieker's Royal Gambit - she also won glowing reviews from Walter Kerr in the New York Herald-Tribune and Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times. Despite this success, as a young actress Drummond felt pigeonholed when she won nothing but offbeat roles. "I wanted to play a lead, and nobody would let me," she remembers. One summer she finally landed a leading role - only to find the experience disappointing. "I thought I would go mad," she says, "because ingenue parts could be very, very boring, at least in those days."
After that, Drummond stuck to the quirky characters that have defined her career. Performing alongside such stars as Jason Robards, Jim Carrey, Colleen Dewhurst, and Paul Newman, she has played everything from a ten-year-old girl to a Cuban grandmother to a psychiatric patient. Her biggest film role to date was in last year's Til There Was You, a romantic comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Dylan McDermott. The director, Scott Winant, had seen Drummond in the acclaimed off-Broadway play Marvin's Room several years earlier and hadn't forgotten her. "Alice is such a versatile actress," says Winant, who made his name as the director and producer of the hit television series thirtysomething. "She's extremely sharp and flexible."
As time has turned her fine hair silver and rheumatoid arthritis has slowed her walk and curled her hands, Drummond has begun to specialize in portraying elderly women. In Til There Was You, she played a fragile, dreamy tenant facing eviction. In the 1990 film about brain-damaged patients, Awakenings, costarring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, Drummond was a mute, gnarled woman who came briefly to life after receiving an experimental drug. In Nobody's Fool (1994), starring Paul Newman, she played a small-town resident suffering from Alzheimer's disease who wanders out into the snow. "Even when I was at Brown, I was playing little old ladies," she says wryly. "But back then, I didn't do it well. I've grown into it."
When Drummond was a girl in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, her mother occasionally kept her out of school to take her to plays in Boston. In high school, Drummond continued her love affair with the theater, winning the female lead in every school production. At Pembroke, where she made Phi Beta Kappa her junior year, she starred regularly for Sock and Buskin in what she now terms "obscure, dreary" plays. "You'd read them and wouldn't know what they meant," she recalls.
Five decades of steady work as an actress have not yet added up to fame for Drummond. Yes, people occasionally recognize her on the street. A few years ago, a young girl sidled up to Drummond on a downtown Manhattan bus to ask if she was the actress who danced with Wesley Snipes in the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. She was.
But as Drummond puts it: "Nobody, nobody knows my name, except for other actors." Sitting in the attractive, simple, two-bedroom apartment she shares with a retired teacher on the East Side of Manhattan, Drummond says she doesn't regret that stardom has eluded her. "What would appeal to me," she says, "is to be able to play any part I wanted. I want the job."
One job she especially wanted and did not get, Drummond says, was the role of the aunt in the movie version of Marvin's Room, starring Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. But as she talked about her life and work late into a Friday evening this spring, by turns passionate and self-mocking, Drummond brightened: the phone was ringing. "Maybe that's my agent," she said, half-joking. It was. Drummond had gone to six auditions that week, and her agent was calling to say she'd gotten two of the parts, both for television pilots. "That's not bad," she said, sounding a little surprised. Not bad at all.