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actress, commercial spokeswoman, consumer advocate
Eliazabeth Mary Furness was born in New York City, New York, on January 3, 1916, the daughter of George Choate Furness, an executive with what was then called Union Carbon and Carbide, and Florence Sturtevant Furness. She was sent to the Bennett School in Dutchess County, New York, but dropped out in 1932 to pursue an acting career.
Acting and Commercial Career
Thanks to summer jobs with the John Robert Powers Modeling Agency, Furness got a screen test at RKO, which signed her to a contract in 1932. She appeared opposite Irene Dunne in Thirteen Women that same year, but her scenes were ultimately cut from the movie. Her screen debut came with Renegades of the West, a minor Western starring Tom Keene, which was released (with her scenes intact) in November 1932. She went on to appear in 35 films, with the most notable being Magnificent Obsessions (1935), Here Comes Cookie (1935), and Swing Time (1936). Her last silver screen appearance was in the B-movie North of Shanghai (1939).
With film roles increasingly difficult to come by, Furness shifted her focus to the stage in 1937. Her stage career proved less than stellar, however, with the stock and road productions of "Golden Boy," "My Sister Eileen," and "Doughgirls" being her only real successes.
In 1945, Furness landed a job with the DuMont Television Network, which signed her to do a 15-minute show called "Fashions, Coming and Becoming." That job led to guest appearances on series such as "Studio One in Hollywood" and "ABC Showcase." In 1948, during filming of a "Studio One" episode, Furness volunteered to substitute for another actor in a Westinghouse commercial spot. The company was so thrilled with her performance that it signed her as their new Westinghouse Girl; it was a role she would maintain for the next twelve years on radio and on television. She also continued acting in a number of television series; starred in her own daytime talk show, "Meet Betty Furness"; hosted "Penthouse Party," and made numerous appearances on the game shows "What's My Line?," "I've Got A Secret," "To Tell the Truth," and "Match Game."
In 1959, a new Westinghouse president decided he wanted a new spokeswoman for his company, and Furness' final spots for Westinghouse were seen within the CBS News coverage of the July 1960 Los Angeles Democratic Convention, the August 1960 Chicago Republican Convention and the evening of November 8th election returns. In 1962, Furness was the hostess of a five-minute radio show called "A Woman's World," in which she talked about food, clothes, child rearing, family relationships, teen-agers and the aged. Late in 1962, she worked on an ABC-TV show called "Answering Service." The show was nominated for an Emmy Award, but ABC dropped her all the same.
After parting ways with Westinghouse, Furness, a vocal Democrat, turned to politics. She worked for Abraham Ribicoff in Connecticut when he made his first successful race for the United States Senate in 1962, and made recruiting trips for Head Start and Vista. In 1967 she was recruited by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs, as well as the chairman of the Presidents Committee on Consumer Interests and head of the Consumer Advisory Council. At first, Furness appointment was met with skepticism, as her identity as the Westinghouse spokeswoman was so ingrained in the public consciousness, but she quickly became an expert in her new field and proved the naysayers wrong. She subsequently served as the first chairman of the New York State Consumer Protection Board (1970-1971) and as the director of Consumer Affairs for New York City (1973).
In 1971 Furness became a consumer affairs reporter for WNBC-TV in New York City, in which capacity she regularly pointed television cameras at stores where New Yorkers had been cheated, and lectured the proprietors. She also reported on hamburger that was too fat, on warranties that were too lean, on gadgets that were too temperamental and on business ethics that she saw as seriously flawed. In 1976 she became the consumer affairs reporter for "The Today Show," a job she held until 1992. She also hosted a local television show in New York called "Buyline: Betty Furness," which won a Peabody Award for excellence in television in 1977. In addition to her television work she also served on the board of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, from 1969 to 1993, and worked for Common Cause.
Furness underwent surgery for stomach cancer in 1990, and succumbed to the disease at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cncer Center in New York City on April 2, 1994.
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