Eleanor Audley was an American actress, with a distinctive voice that helped her find work as a voice actress in radio and animation. She is primarily remembered as the first actress to voice Lady Tremaine and Maleficent, two of the most memorable Disney villains.
Audley’s real name was “Eleanor Zellman”, and she was from New York City. She was Jewish, but little is known about her family background. She made her acting debut in 1926, at the Broadway production of “Howdy, King”. She was about 20-years-old at the time. She remained primarily a theatrical actress through the 1920s and the 1930s.
During the 1940s, Audley started playing a number of prominent roles in radio serials. Among them was mother-in-law Leticia Cooper in “My Favorite Husband” (1948-1951), receptionist Molly Byrd in “The Story of Dr. Kildare” (1949-1951), and neighbor, Elizabeth Smith in “Father Knows Best” (1949-1954).
Audley was hired by Disney to play the role of wealthy widow Lady Tremaine in the animated feature film “Cinderella” (1950). Audley was also used as the live-action model of the character, and her facial features were used by the animators who designed the character. In the film, Lady Tremaine is depicted as the abusive stepmother of Cinderella (voiced by Ilene Woods) and the domineering mother of Anastasia Tremaine (voiced by Lucille Bliss) and Drizella Tremaine (voiced by Rhoda Williams). The film was a box office hit, and its profits helped rescue the Disney studio from a financial decline that had lasted for almost a decade.
For the rest of the decade, Audley appeared regularly in supporting roles in film, and guest roles in television. She returned to animation when hired to voice the evil fairy Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). As before, Audley was also used as a live-action model for the character. During the film’s production, Audley was struggling with tuberculosis, While nominally the villain, Maleficent received more screen-time in the finished film than titular protagonist Princess Aurora (voiced by Mary Costa).
“Sleeping Beauty” earned only about 37 million dollars at the domestic box office, and was considered a box office flop. It was the last animated adaptation of a fairy tale that Disney produced, until the revival of the genre in 1989. Audrey was not invited to voice other villains. The film earned critical and popular acclaim through later re-releases, and Maleficent has been revived many times by Disney. But never with her original voice actress.
In the 1960s, Audley played supporting roles in then-popular television series. Among her most prominent roles were Irma Lumpk in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis “, Peggy Billings in “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, Millicent Schuyler-Potts in “The Beverly Hillbillies” , Aunt Martha in “Mister Ed”, Jenny Teasley in “Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats”, Eunice Douglas in “Green Acres”, and Beatrice Vincent in “My Three Sons”.
Audley worked with Disney again to voice psychic medium Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Leota is depicted as a ghost who communicates with the living, and other actresses have since voiced the character.
Audley’s long career ended prematurely in the 1970s, due to her increasingly poor health. She lived in retirement until her death in 1991, at the age of 86. The cause of death was respiratory failure. Audley was interred at the Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Her character of Madame Leota received its own tombstone in 2001. The epitaph reads: “Dear sweet Leota, beloved by all. In regions beyond now, but having a ball.”
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