Ruth Roman was born to Lithuanian-Jewish parents, Mary Pauline (née Gold) and Abraham Roman. Her mother was a dancer and her father a barker in a carnival that they owned at Revere, Massachusetts. She had two sisters, Ann and Eve. Her father died when Ruth was eight, and her mother sold the carnival.
As a girl, she attended the William Blackstone School and Girls' High School in Boston. She pursued her desire to become an actress by enrolling in the prestigious Bishop Lee Dramatic School in Boston. She enhanced her skills with work in the New England Repertory Company and the Elizabeth Peabody Players.
Heading to New York City, Roman hoped to find success on Broadway. Instead, she worked as a cigarette girl, a hat check girl and a model to make a living and save money. Four years later, Roman journeyed to Hollywood, where she obtained bit parts in several films before being cast in the title role in the thirteen-episode serial Jungle Queen (1945).
While waiting for an opportunity in movies, Roman wrote short stories based on her experiences living in a "theatrical boarding house." She sold two of them – The House of the Seven Garbos and The Whip Song.
She played an important supporting role in the film, Champion (1949), as the (shotgun-wedded) wife of a boxer played by Oscar-nominated Kirk Douglas. In one of her most memorable roles, Roman co-starred with Farley Granger and Robert Walker in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Strangers on a Train (1951). In the film Three Secrets (1950), she played a distraught mother waiting to learn whether or not her child survived an airplane crash.
Roman was a love interest to James Stewart in the Anthony Mann-directed western The Far Country (1955). She was the leading lady in other westerns, including Colt .45 (1950) with Randolph Scott and Dallas (1950) with Gary Cooper. The May 1, 1950, issue of Life magazine featured Roman in a cover story, "The Rapid Rise of Ruth Roman".
The actress had top billing in a pair of dramas, Tomorrow Is Another Day and Lightning Strikes Twice (both 1951). She was featured prominently in the adventure stories Mara Maru (1952) with Errol Flynn, Tanganyika and The Shanghai Story (both 1954), co-starred with Van Johnson in the films Invitation (1952) and The Bottom of the Bottle (1956) and had top billing again in 5 Steps to Danger (1957), a spy film, opposite Sterling Hayden.
In 1959, Roman won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre. She was selected from among 47 nominees based on her performance in Two for the Seesaw.
Although she never achieved the level of success as a leading lady that many predicted, Roman did work regularly in films well up to the late 1950s. Then she began making appearances on television shows. These included recurring roles in NBC's 1965–1966 The Long, Hot Summer and, toward the end of her career, recurring roles in the 1986 season of Knots Landing and several episodes of Murder, She Wrote, both on CBS.
She guest-starred in NBC's Bonanza and Sam Benedict, ABC's The Bing Crosby Show sitcom and its circus drama, The Greatest Show on Earth starring Jack Palance, as well as Burke's Law starring Gene Barry and I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. She also appeared as a fiery redhead in an episode of Gunsmoke.
She appeared in the early 1960s in the medical dramas The Eleventh Hour and Breaking Point. She starred in a season 3 episode of Mission: Impossible (1968) titled "The Elixir" as Riva Santel as well as a Season 2 episode of Naked City.
Many other series featured guest appearances by Roman, including Route 66, Mannix, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Mod Squad, The FBI, Tarzan, and The Outer Limits.
In 1960, Roman was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard for her contribution to television.
Married four times, she had one son, Richard (born November 12, 1952), with her husband Mortimer Hall. She married Hall on December 17, 1950. In 1956, she sued him for divorce, and the divorce decree became final on April 15, 1957.
In July 1956, Roman was just finishing a trip to Europe with her son Richard, who was three years old at the time. At the port of Cannes, they boarded the Italian passenger liner SS Andrea Doria as First Class passengers for their return passage to the United States. On the night of July 25, the Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish passenger liner MS Stockholm.
Roman was in the Belvedere Lounge when the collision happened and immediately took off her high heels and scrambled back to her cabin barefoot to retrieve her sleeping son. Several hours later, with the other passengers, they were both evacuated from the sinking liner. Richard was lowered first into a waiting lifeboat, but before she could follow, the lifeboat departed. Ruth stepped into the next boat and was eventually rescued along with 750 other survivors from the Andrea Doria by the French passenger liner SS Île de France. Richard was rescued by the Stockholm and was reunited with his mother in New York.
Roman died at the age of 76 in her sleep of natural causes at her Laguna Beach, California, home on September 9, 1999. She was survived by her son, Richard Roman Hall.