Early life and career
Schafer was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. Her family moved to Manhattan after her birth. She was the eldest child of Jennie Elizabeth (née Tim) and Charles Emanual Schafer. Her family was of German Jewish descent. She began her career as an actress on Broadway before moving to Los Angeles in 1941 to work in films.
Schafer appeared on Broadway in 17 plays between 1927 and 1959, often playing supporting roles. Most of these appearances were in short-run plays, with the exceptions of Lady in the Dark (1941–1942), The Doughgirls (1942–44), and Romanoff and Juliet (1957–58). She was seen in a revival of Six Characters in Search of an Author, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1955–56). She appeared in stock and regional productions of plays, including an off-Broadway production of The Killing of Sister George, with Claire Trevor in the title role.
Schafer appeared in many films, usually portraying beautiful sophisticates, but she is best known for playing the role of Lovey Howell on Gilligan's Island. She reprised her role in made-for-television spin-off films after the show ended, along with the animated spinoff, Gilligan's Planet, in 1982.
She was a guest star on many television series, including Goodyear Playhouse/Philco Playhouse: (The Sisters, with Grace Kelly, 1951), I Love Lucy (1954), Producers' Showcase ("The Petrified Forest", 1955), Guestward, Ho! (1960), The Beverly Hillbillies (1964), Mayberry RFD (1970), The Brady Bunch (1974), Three's Company, The Love Boat, and Phyllis (1976). In 1971–72, Schafer joined the cast of the CBS daytime-serial, Search for Tomorrow as Helen Collins, mother of Wade and Clay Collins. Immediately following, she played Augusta Roulland on another daytime soap, Love of Life. Her final performance was in the 1990 television film I'm Dangerous Tonight.
Schafer was legendarily secretive about her age, never even telling Calhern. The year 1912 was generally given as her birth year for many years, which few believed, yet her actual year of birth (which was not discovered until after her death) of 1900 shocked even her intimate friends. She was also a breast cancer survivor, a fact she withheld from her fans and friends.
Her investments, particularly in real estate, made her a multi-millionaire. Differing sources state that most of this fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan's Island co-star Dawn Wells, or to care for her dogs. Wells did not comment on that but did claim, on Vicki Lawrence's talk show, Vicky!, that Schafer spent her last years living with Wells, who was her caretaker. Wells also stated that one of Schafer's favorite things on Gilligan's Island was "falling through quicksand".
She bequeathed between $1.5 million and $2 million to the Lillian Booth Actors Home to renovate the hospital's outpatient wing, which was renamed, in 1993, the Natalie Schafer Wing.
- The Body Disappears (1941)
- Reunion in France (1942)
- Marriage Is a Private Affair (1944)
- Keep Your Powder Dry (1945)
- Molly and Me (1945)
- Wonder Man (1945)
- Dishonored Lady (1947)
- Repeat Performance (1947)
- Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
- The Snake Pit (1948)
- Caught (1949)
- Take Care of My Little Girl (1951)
- The Law and the Lady (1951)
- Callaway Went Thataway (1951)
- Payment on Demand (1951)
- Just Across the Street (1952)
- The Girl Next Door (1953)
- Casanova's Big Night (1954)
- Female on the Beach (1955)
- Forever, Darling (1956)
- Anastasia (1956)
- Bernardine (1957)
- Back Street (1961)
- Susan Slade (1961)
- 40 Carats (1973)
- The Day of the Locust (1975)
- Beverly Hills Brats (1989)
- I'm Dangerous Tonight (1990)