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Mary Rings' journey from Lowell to Hollywood

Mary Rings is a successful Hollywood actress who has spent decades working in film and television. Rings also founded the Born to Act Players, an acting company for people with Down syndrome. That really took off, especially in the past few years, and her students have gone on to roles in productions like ER, CSI and American Horror Story.

Rings is a native of West Michigan whose family origins in Lowell run deep. Her mother, Orpha Stauffer, was a 1934 graduate of Lowell High School who grew up in a home on Montcalm Avenue slightly east of downtown. It was a dirt road back then and it still is.

“My mom was one of six children, and my grandparents had a farmhouse on Montcalm,” Rings said. “Our family home was in Wyoming Park, now it's just called Wyoming. We also had a cottage on Olin Lake [midway between Kent City and Cedar Springs] where we spent every summer. Every Sunday we would go to church together and then go visit grandma and grandpa. My uncle Harry Stauffer and his wife lived there too, and they also had six children. My grandparents were so charming and sweet. Grandma played the piano, grandpa played the violin, my dad played the ukulele and the harmonica and we would all sing. It was so beautiful. They would cook chicken, homemade noodles and pies, we got to run around and play outside, there were goats and chickens, apple trees in the front yard, everything was wonderful, it was the best time ever. Montcalm, at that time, was not even paved, I don't know if it is now. My cousin Roger Stauffer still lives in that house. He is a wonderful guy, he helps take care of his sisters and he is just great. I love Lowell. I loved the Lowell Showboat, we used to go see that. My sister Nancy even performed in a couple shows on it but I never did. I moved away from Michigan when I was 12. It's been a long time, but I go back to visit because my whole family is there, my siblings, my cousins, nieces and nephews.”

Roger Stauffer said he is his cousin's biggest fan and always made sure to tune in whenever she was going to be in something.

“I've been very proud of Mary for many years,” Stauffer said. “Most of my memories are when she was already in California. Mary is very, very talented. She lives in California so I don't see her that often, but I talk to her on the phone when I can, every so often. She doesn't come every summer, but she comes out to Michigan to visit some summers, and then we always have a get-together with family and hang out. We would go visit California sometimes and that was great. It was quite a while ago, years and years. We went to Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Wax Museum and visited a lot of different things. To see the lights of Hollywood at night from that big hill! It was really cool.”

Rings' career as a professional entertainer began during those innocent years in West Michigan.

“I always loved entertaining and singing and dancing,” Rings said. “When I lived in Michigan, I used to take dance classes. I took tap and modern jazz. We had a lot of shows that we would participate in. We would go entertain, we would wear costumes and sing and dance, it was lovely. When I was 12, I was hired to dance with a line of girls ages 18 to 21. We would dance at the Pantlind Hotel [now the Amway Grand Plaza] and places like that. You had to be 18 to be in there. I was tall - five foot six and a half at 12 - so they said, 'Mary, you look 18, you dance 18, but if you open your mouth and say 'Hello' to anybody you won't get paid, so just put your nose up and walk!' They would've gotten in trouble, but that was still pretty funny.”

Rings' father Robert Rings was a Golden Gloves boxing champion and close friends with Gerald Ford. Robert Rings also fought in carnivals and, after serving as a glider pilot in World War II, became a professional middleweight boxer, eventually a referee. His work moved the Rings family around the country, but when Robert and Orpha Rings realized how talented and dedicated their daughter Mary was, they made one final move, to Hollywood. Robert Rings spent the rest of his career working as a professional boxing referee at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, he even made a brief appearance as a referee in the 1980 film “Raging Bull.”

“My dad had to move for business, they transferred him a couple times,” Rings said. “First we moved to Baltimore for a year, then Washington DC for a summer, then Kansas City, MO for a year. I was doing modeling and always entertaining, so my dad and mom decided they would move to Los Angeles for me, for my career. It was so amazing. They believed in me so much and they were so supportive of me. I would do plays, and I had friends whose parents wouldn't even come to see them in shows. My parents came to every single performance, they would send me telegrams and flowers on opening night. I started acting before I started driving, so my parents had to drive me to every rehearsal. I was so blessed by them and their support. They just were so, so supportive. And they were sweet and funny, everybody loved my mom and dad. My mom managed an apartment building some of the time when I was growing up out here, and if anybody in the building didn't have a place to go for Thanksgiving, they would have a place at our table. And if they wouldn't come she'd send them up a plate!”

Step one in becoming a Hollywood actor is to get an agent, a task that is often incredibly difficult. Rings said she got her agent after they observed the high quality of her performance in a play and approached her.

“I started doing theater out here in California when I was in ninth grade,” Rings said. “My drama teacher's name was Edith Heckman, she was Deanna Durbin's older sister, and she really believed in me.”

Rings' first role on television was "girl student" on an NBC sitcom called "Hank" (starring Dick Kallman as "Hank") in 1966. Next up was a 1968 TV movie called "Elizabeth the Queen." A big step up, her costars in that one were Charlton Heston and Dame Judith Anderson.

“I always thought it was great when Mary was going to be on TV,” Stauffer said. “She's been in so many things, it's hard to pick a favorite. I'm trying to track down some of the ones she was on a long time ago, but it's hard to find them. I'm not even sure if they're on DVD. When I had a VCR I tried to record a lot of her stuff, so I've got a lot on VHS, but it's better to have it digital.”

Rings had a part in a 1971 movie called "Skin Game" with James Garner, Lou Gossett, Jr., Susan Clark and Ed Asner, but most of her work has been in television dramas. Her many appearances include episodes of Gunsmoke, Marcus Welby MD, Emergency!, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Dr. Quinn and Chicago Hope.

“I had a baby in a restaurant on Emergency! with Julie London and Robert Fuller attending, that was fun,” Rings said. “I did a couple episodes of 'The Six Million Dollar Man,' where I had a scene with Lee Majors and a scene with William Shatner, who was a guest star for an episode called 'Look Alike.' He played the look-alike and I was the look-alike's girlfriend.”

“I loved the 'Gunsmoke' episode she was in from 1971,” Stauffer said when pestered enough to name his favorite Mary Rings role. “I liked 'Gunsmoke' a lot anyway, but that was a very good episode. It was called 'Mirage,' she had a big part in it and her acting was particularly wonderful in that role. She was in a couple episodes of 'The Six Million Dollar Man,' those were wonderful too. William Shatner was in one with her, and she had very good acting qualities in those. When she was on 'Emergency!,' that one was awesome. She gave birth in the middle of a restaurant, it was a really great.”

Rings described her time on the set of Wonder Woman as “an incredible day.”

“I was doing a scene with Lyle Waggoner, Christopher George, Lynda Day George and Lynda Carter, and I felt like a potted plant,” Rings joked. “Nobody even looked at me or said anything to me. They were all stars, I was just a player, and it was very funny. They weren't mean to me or anything, it was just as if I didn't exist! I was there all day, probably a six o'clock am call until around 10 at night. We were on location and the hills had gotten all moist and damp. I was supposed to run up this hill at the end of the night, and I couldn't get up in time! My boots kept slipping because it was muddy. I heard the director calling me, but he said 'the girl with the braids,' he didn't even know my name! Finally I told one of the assistant directors that I kept slipping, that was why I couldn't get up in time, and they cut steps in the side of the hill so I could get up there in time. Then I had to go stand between Lynda Day George and Lynda Carter after the makeup people were over there powdering them. I'd been there all day and nobody was touching me up at all, and then I had to go stand between these two gorgeous babes! Oh my gosh!”

On one production, Rings got to do a scene with the wife of an old school friend.

“On 'Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman' I had a scene with Jane Seymour,” Rings said. “It was an emotional scene and she applauded my close-up. She was so sweet to me. I had gone to high school and done drama with her husband at that time James Keach. She said to me, 'Tell me about James as a little boy!' I had to break it to her, even then he was a big guy! He was a football player in high school, so he was NOT a little boy! But she was very, very sweet to me.”

Looking back, Rings said she is very happy with how her acting career has turned out.

“I love love love acting, and I feel really blessed,” Rings said. “I used to feel like, why aren't I getting more parts or why aren't I getting bigger parts, but now I'm so thankful for it and so proud of the work that I was able to do. I was able to work with some very big stars and it really was a lot of fun. I had some really good parts, and I am so grateful for every part that I got.”

In 1994, Rings founded the Born to Act Players, a theater company for people with Down syndrome. She was inspired by her son Casey Powell, who was interested in acting and talented, but no outlet was available to him because he has Down syndrome.

“An actor friend of mine who knew Casey and some of his friends said, 'Mary, I think you should start an acting class for Casey and his friends,'” Rings said. “His wife had a nutritional office in North Hollywood, there was a back room with a tiny stage and about 20 seats. He said, 'I want to donate that to you on Saturdays so you can do a class.' I told Casey's best friend Blair Williamson and his mom Gail Williamson that I was offered a space and I wanted to start a class for Casey, Blair and some of their friends. Blair also has Down syndrome, and he had done some acting work already. Gail said, 'I will help you get students,' which she did, and I also put fliers up. I did a year with eight students, which was great, so much fun, and it's grown since then.”

Now, with a few assistants and some other volunteers, Rings works with three groups of Born to Act Players each week, from beginners to professionals, over 50 people in all. They learn about body awareness, staying focused and in the moment, how to exercise their voices and how to improve their improvisational skills, they perform full plays, one act plays and monologues and they receive musical training, including singing and dancing.

“The Born to Act Players are just awesome,” Stauffer said. “Mary gives them a lot of hope, inspires their interest in acting and helps them achieve different things they don't get a chance to do very often. I know those actors and actresses love her a lot. They did a show in Canada, I have a DVD of that, it was very good. Casey is quite a good kid, a smart boy. Well, I guess he's not a kid anymore, he's a young man!”

Several of the Born to Act Players have found professional acting work, and Rings expects a lot more to follow as society changes to become more accepting of people with different abilities.

“Many of my students are in the Screen Actors Guild now, including my son Casey,” Rings said. “It's really something. They're getting training and they're getting chances. They're confident and they love it. Casey had a co-starring role on an episode of 'Switched at Birth.' He did great, I'm so proud of his work on that. He had an emotional part and it was wonderful. He, along with some of my other students, also got a pilot with Loni Anderson. Jamie Brewer is a great actress with Down syndrome, she is a former student of mine and now she really has a career going. Her mother used to drive her two and a half hours each way to my class in Temecula. She played Jessica Lange's sister and other parts on 'American Horror Story,' she was the first runway model with Down syndrome to walk during Fashion Week in New York City, and somebody wrote an Off-Broadway play for her. There is a show called 'Born This Way' where they follow seven young adults with Down syndrome around. They have won Emmys. One of the guys on that show, John Tucker, a rapper, singer and dancer, was another student of mine. He has a big personality!”

Twice a year the Born to Act Players put on big fundraising shows that keep the program going. The cast performs elaborate Broadway-style musical numbers, comedy, improvisation, drama, music and dance. Everything “from Woody Allen to Shakespeare,” according to their website, borntoactplayers.com, which incidentally also features a “donate” button.

“We are like a family, there is so much love and joy you can't even believe it,” Rings said. “I have students and assistants who have stayed for 18, 20 years. Casey and Blair have been with me for all 26 years. I think this is what God wants me to do. I know it is. I love teaching acting so much, and I'm very proud of my students. These are his very special children, and they've been mistreated and misunderstood over the years. They are such a blessing. They're like angels. They're sweeter and kinder than anybody else, they don't judge and they forgive quicker. They are courageous and they love to perform. The only fear a lot of my students have is not enough time on stage. I've seen my students change in miraculous ways. Some of them come in very shy with their heads down, later they're bold, self confident, strong and amazing. They're not shy anymore! They are successful, they are talented, they have hearts of gold and they are changing the world. It's such a gift to me, it's so fun and I love it so much. Anybody who sees them and knows somebody with a disability, it gives them hope. We are so blessed. It's so wonderful it makes me want to weep!”

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