Ruta Lee believes in what she’s calling gorgeous serendipity—the way nothing happens accidentally and how everything flows from one moment to the next. In a story that deserves its own movie, Lee recalled watching Frank Sinatra perform live and how it eventually led to her being cast alongside the Rat Pack in Sergeants 3, the remake of 1939’s Gunga Din.
“I was enchanted because I had never seen Frank Sinatra live,” Lee told Illeana Douglas in Popcorn Talk’s The Film Scene. “I, of course, am so enthralled with him, because you know, and you know, nobody was or ever will be like Frank Sinatra.”
Lee recalled the way she watched Sinatra up on stage, and how Arthur Hornblow, Jr., a producer for the film Witness for the Prosecution, noticed her watching Sinatra. Hornblow approached Lee and said he’d just given her the most unusual screen test. That is, he decided to cast her in Witness for the Prosecution based on her natural reaction to Sinatra.
Of course, Lee jumped at the chance to meet iconic filmmaker Billy Wilder, the director and one of the writers for the movie.
“Well Bill Wilder was God,” Lee said. “And so I went in to meet Billy Wilder and they put me on camera. Marlene Dietrich took one look at my blonde head and said nichts, nein. Forget it. I became a brunette overnight, and that’s how I got to be the ingenue, the soubrette, in Witness for the Prosecution.”
Lee portrayed Diana in the film, a young woman who’s—fittingly—watching the trial and waiting for one of the characters to be freed. The film released in 1957. Afterward, Lee continued with her film and TV career, never thinking that seeing Sinatra and getting cast in Witness for the Prosecution would lead back to Sinatra himself.
“Okay, fade out, fade in. It’s three, four years later,” Lee emphasized, painting the picture for the next scene in her story. “We all know that Frank loved nothing more than staying home for a big Italian dinner and screening a new movie.”
Apparently, Sinatra and his film partner, Howey Koch, setup Witness for the Prosecution one night, and that was how he decided to bring Lee in to star in Sergeants 3, the final movie to feature all five members of the Rat Pack—Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.
“That’s how I became the leading lady,” Lee said. “Now you wanna talk about gorgeous serendipity.”
From Sinatra to Witness for the Prosecution and back to Sinatra again, Lee’s life in film seems to have moved in a complete circle. But the most enjoyable part about listening to the story is hearing the joy in Lee’s voice as she recalls what led to Sinatra’s casting choice.
To listen the rest of her interview with Popcorn Talk, be sure to click on the link above for Lee’s other stories. After all, she’s certainly a legend in her own right.