When it became evident that Ann Willis Ratray would not survive the illnesses that had plagued her in recent years, her devoted acting students — prevented from visiting by the COVID-19 pandemic — asked what they could do.
“Write to her,” said her son Luke. And so they did in a flood of emotional letters that credited her with launching their careers and inspiring their lives.
“Thank you for teaching me to act,” wrote one young star. “I will love you forever.”
Her husband, actor Peter Ratray, sat at her bedside and read aloud to her the dozens of tributes in her final days.
“She altered the course of so many lives,” he said in announcing that Ann had died June 9 at their New York City home with her family and friends around her. She was 81.
Born in Cranston, R.I., on Nov. 14, 1939, Ann Louise Willis was the daughter of a commercial artist, George C. Willis, and his wife, Evelyn. She had seven siblings and the family struggled financially.
She found her path out of poverty when she was named Miss Rhode Island in 1958 and went to the Miss America pageant. She won the Miss Congeniality title and used her prize money for schooling, first at the Rhode Island School of Design and then at New York’s famed American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Acting was her calling, and her first major role in 1964 took her to the Allenbury Playhouse in Harrisburg, Pa., where she costarred in “Separate Rooms” opposite the handsome actor who would become her husband. She and Peter Ratray would have celebrated their 55th anniversary this week.
In 1968, she appeared on Broadway with Angela Lansbury in the hit musical “Mame.” The touring company brought her to San Francisco and Los Angeles. When the run ended, she and Peter decided to try their luck in Hollywood, where they lived for the next nine years working in TV and theater and building a large circle of friends. It was there that they welcomed two sons — Luke, who would become an accomplished photographer, and Devin, a well-known actor.
While in Los Angeles, the Ratrays appeared in the movie “Last Train to Hollywood” portraying singers Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy.
In 1975, with toddler Luke in tow, they toured the country for 10 months with Tab Hunter in the comedy “Here Lies Jeremy Troy.”
Two years later, when Peter Ratray won a starring role in the daytime TV drama “Another World,” the family moved back to New York where they would remain. In 1981, Ann Ratray returned to Broadway in a revival of the George Bernard Shaw play “Candida” with Joanne Woodward.
A turning point came in 1990 when their son Devin was cast as Buzz, the brother of Macaulay Culkin's character, in the movie “Home Alone.” As Devin's acting coach, Ratray found her next career. She rose to be the most sought-after drama teacher for young actors in New York and inspired a generation of students who found fame and awards. Casting directors looked to her for new talent.
Her students included Merritt Wever, who won Emmys for “Nurse Jackie” and “Godless”; YaYa DaCosta (“Chicago Med”); Kaitlyn Nichol (“Blackish”); and David Alvarez, who will be seen in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” along with another of Ratray's students, Corey Stoll, who has appeared in many TV shows and played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”
In a throwback to her beginnings, Ratray was engaged as a consultant in 2003 on the Broadway play “Bobbi Boland” with Farrah Fawcett, which told the story of an aging Miss America.
Ratray is survived by her husband, her two sons, sister Sue Zoglio, brothers David Willis and Douglas Willis and a grandson, Riley Ratray.
Deutsch is a retired Associated Press writer and a Times special correspondent.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.