By Susan Toepfer
January 18, 1988 12:00 PM

A rasping bellow offscreen warns of the hunch-shouldered, lumbering body to come. As she lurches before the camera, her matted, greasy hair brushes against her pink bathrobe. She looks up and—mama, mia!—her eyes are like cesspools, her lips are like crushed salamanders, and her teeth need cleaning. As Danny DeVito’s maternal nemesis in Throw Momma From the Train, Anne Ramsey has the face of a mother no one could love. And that’s why Anne—would you believe she’s an aristocratic Bennington grad and former debutante?—suddenly, at age 58, is sitting pretty.

“It’s about time,” growls Ramsey, in tones befitting the comedy’s murder-provoking mom. Her husband, noted character actor Logan Ramsey, 66, agrees: “After 37 years in the business, it’s a beautiful thing.” That Anne is starring in one of the season’s hit movies is also something of a miracle: Less than two years ago, stricken with tongue cancer, Ramsey was flat on an operating room table. “I wound up having a third of my tongue removed,” she calmly recounts. “I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to talk again.”

The nightmare began just after Anne finished her role as evil gang leader Mama Fratelli in Steven Spielberg’s kiddie spoof Goonies. “I had a sore throat for a long time and it scared me. I saw a lump in my throat and I was terrified. I wouldn’t go to a doctor. Finally, Logan got me to go.” At first doctors tried to destroy the cancer with radiation—as Anne continued to take on guest spots in Hill Street Blues, Night Court and Knight Rider. “Five days a week, for eight weeks, Logan would take me to Cedars-Sinai for treatment, then I’d go to work. I felt so lucky I had the strength to continue.” But a second blow came when Anne was told surgery could no longer be avoided, and that there was no predicting whether her tongue—and therefore her ability to speak—could be saved.

She entered surgery the morning of her 57th birthday. The operation, which lasted more than eight hours, included removing tissue from her thigh to reconstruct part of her tongue. “They didn’t let me talk for two weeks. I had to write notes to my husband. Then the doctor took the tube from my throat and said, ‘Say something.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to say?’ When I heard that I could speak, even though it wasn’t too good, I burst into tears.”

The cancer left Ramsey with stiffness, some shoulder pain and a drooling condition she dismisses as “manageable. I’m just thrilled to be alive.” Standing only 5’4″, she once routinely weighed 185 lbs. Now, she says, “I’m 60 lbs. lighter. It’s an awful way to lose weight. But I tried my whole life and it finally happened.”

Then, too, Ramsey’s stooping frame and slightly slurred speech fit right in with the vision of maternal malice De-Vito wanted for his big screen directorial debut. In Throw Momma, Danny plays a henpecked son who tries to enlist a hapless writer (Billy Crystal) in his attempts to off his mater. “I read the script and I fell apart,” says Anne, who had worked with Danny on the 1978 movie Goin’ South.

DeVito, meanwhile, was desperately seeking his title character. “I was at my wit’s end,” he remembers. “It had gotten so bad that people were beginning to recommend their own mothers—and I was starting to check them out! Then my casting people brought in Anne. I knew immediately that Momma had walked into my life.”

DeVito says he was initially attracted by her “spirit and strength. She’s very bold. In that scene where she’s dangling from the train, we had to turn her upside down. I was reluctant to do that to anybody, much less Anne. But we built a protective Plexiglass bodysuit, and she just hung in there.” As shooting progressed, he confesses, “I kept adding more and more lines for her and more and more oil to her hair. I wanted her to be as far from a sweet momma as we could get.”

The resulting banshee was also as far from Ramsey’s background as she could get. The daughter of insurance executive Nathan Mobley and his wife, Mayflower descendant Eleanor Smith, Anne grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. When she was 16, the family moved to Greenwich, Conn., across the street from the exclusive girls school, Rosemary Hall. As a student there she numbered among her schoolmates such socialites as Lily Lodge (the daughter of the Connecticut Governor and niece of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.) and Helen Hayes’ daughter, Mary MacArthur. Though Ramsey calls herself a “Depression baby,” her family was highfalutin enough for Anne to make her debut the same season as a then-obscure Jacqueline Bouvier.

“Jackie may still be in the mold, but the debutante thing didn’t really take with Anne,” notes Logan. What did take was acting. Anne’s fascination with the theater began when she was 4, carried her to Shakespeare camp at 7, and through the drama department of Bennington College, eventually bringing her to Logan: The couple met when both were performing at the Surry Playhouse in Surry, Me. Married in 1954, they have frequently appeared together in projects, including Clint Eastwood’s Any Which Way You Can. Still, protests Logan: “We don’t usually rent out as a couple.”

Paying the rent wasn’t always easy, but the couple did lead lives that one might truly label star-crossed. Anne recalls Dustin Hoffman’s working for her as a messenger in New York during the early ’60s, when she supplemented her income by coordinating award dinners for the NFL. Waxing equally nostalgic, Logan remembers casting teenager Barbra Streisand as Anne’s maid in a summer stock production of The Boy Friend in Fishkill, N.Y. Years later, Anne would appear in two Streisand films, Up the Sandbox and For Pete’s Sake. “I love Barbra. We exchange recipes,” says Anne, who briefly toiled as a New York Times food writer.

For all the struggle, the Ramseys have built steady character careers, and their two-bedroom San Fernando Valley ranch house is cluttered with memorabilia. Photos of such friends as Ed Asner and Geraldine Page rest near one of Logan with his father, U.S. Navy Adm. Logan Ramsey, who as air defense officer sent one of the most famous radio messages in history: “Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill.” Nestling on a window seat are a passel of stuffed animals, a gift from Jeff B. Cohen—who, until Throw Momma, was her most tormented screen victim: In Goonies, Ramsey stunned then-10-year-old Cohen with the memorable line, “Put that kid’s hand in the blender and hit puree.” The Ramseys frequently see Cohen, now 13, who declares, “Anne is always playing these tough guys, but she and Logan are really nice. They’re party animals.”

Behind their home is a disheveled studio, crammed with even more photos, where they toss their parties. “It’s more than lived-in,” says Logan, “it’s dumped-in.” Here are the stills of Anne as Nick Nolte’s addled mom in Weeds. Here, too, is Logan in The Young and the Restless. “I played the show’s villain for two years,” he says. “Anne was doing Goonies. We had a huge birthday party—our birthdays are a week apart—and the Spielberg office sent over a cake that said, ‘To the two meanest people in Hollywood.’ ”

Since Momma, Logan likes to refer to his wife as “the millionairess,” but they both admit that a full quarter of her salary went to a two-week Christmas splurge in London. “We like to take vacations,” says Anne, “and we go to Vegas twice a year. That way we’re always guaranteed to be broke.”

There are no children in the wings who are eyeing what’s left of Momma’s fortune. The Ramseys share their lives with two mutts and a Siamese cat. They are also very active in Dennis Weaver’s charity, Love is Feeding Everybody, which provides meals for the hungry in Southern California.

Anne’s newfound prominence has brought calls for her and Logan, including a bid for the couple to appear in Bill Murray’s planned Christmas film, Scrooge. “When I came home from the hospital, I was so grateful to be alive,” Anne says with a sigh. “And I’ve always prayed to be recognized. But I never would have guessed that it would come at a time in my life like this.” With a twinkle and hug, her delighted husband puts it less poetically: “Maybe she’ll open it up for other old broads.”