Edith Fellows, an expressive child actress of the 1930s and ’40s who returned to showbiz late in life to work in television, died of natural causes at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Sunday, June 26. She was 88.
Fellows was born in Boston. She showed promise in early dance and voice lessons, and a conman posing as a talent scout convinced her grandmother to fork over $50 and take the child out to Hollywood. Despite discovering the fraud upon arrival in California, the strong-willed grandmother vowed to remain, and the tyke was cast in the 1929 silent short “Movie Night” after going along for the ride with a neighbor headed to Hal Roach Studios.
She appeared in some of Roach’s “Our Gang” pics in the early 1930s, including 1933’s “Mush and Milk,” but also appeared in popular feature films including 1931’s “Huckleberry Finn,” staring Junior Durkin and Jackie Coogan; the 1934 version of “Jane Eyre”; and 1935 Claudette Colbert-Melvyn Douglas farce “She Married Her Boss.”
In a high-profile 1936 custody battle, Edith’s mother, who had abandoned the family when the child was 2, returned and sought not only custody but the purse strings: “my money — past, present and future,” Fellows told People magazine in 1984. Her controlling, disciplinarian grandmother retained custody, but the actress’s earnings were put into a trust.
Fellows’ success in “Pennies From Heaven” (1936), in which she starred as a spunky orphan opposite Bing Crosby, led Columbia to sign the 14-year-old in 1937 to a seven-year contract — perhaps the first such deal offered to a child — after which she was cast in a series of leading roles in lower-profile Col pics. She had her own film series starting with 1939’s “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” and continuing with three other movies in which she starred as Polly Pepper.
Fellows retired from films after marrying talent agent (later producer) Freddie Fields in 1942.
In the early 1950s the actress made some television appearances on “Musical Comedy Time,” “Studio One in Hollywood,” “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Medallion Theatre.”
By late in the decade, however, the end of her marriage to Fields and the sudden onset of stage fright, among other factors, led to a nervous breakdown and a period of personal decline.
Fellows returned to acting again in the 1980s with guest appearances on the brief NBC series “The Brady Brides,” “Simon and Simon,” “Father Murphy” and “St. Elsewhere.”
In 1983 she won praise for her portrayal of famed costume designer Edith Head in ABC biopic “Grace Kelly”; the next year, in the “Catch a Falling Star” episode of NBC series “Riptide,” she played a child star who had fallen on hard times very much like herself.
In 1985 Jackie Cooper, a former child star who had become a successful TV director, unveiled plans for a telepic based on Fellows’ life, but the film was never shot. Cooper died earlier this year.
Fellows continued TV work, last appearing in 1995 in an episode of “ER” and on the NBC series “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and also did two films, “The Hills Have Eyes Part II” (1985) and “In the Mood” (1987).
Fellows is survived by daughter Kathy Fields Lander, who has worked in showbiz as a motion picture still photographer and in other capacities; Lander’s husband, actor David L. Lander; as well as a granddaughter, actress Natalie Lander.
Donations may be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund or SAG Foundation.