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Jane Wyatt

Jane Wyatt

  • Pitfall, The (1948) August 25 (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
  • Navy Comes Through, The (1942) September 15 (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
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Also Known As: Died: October 20, 2006
Born: August 12, 1910 Cause of Death: natural causes
Birth Place: Campgaw, New Jersey, USA Profession: Cast ... actor
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BIOGRAPHY

Best known for her work on the enduring television sitcom "Father Knows Best" (CBS/NBC, 1954-1960), Jane Wyatt had displayed her talents in numerous stage and film productions before landing the role that brought her into millions of American living rooms each week. After earning a measure of success on Broadway in the classic farce "Dinner at Eight" (1932-33), the pretty brunette was offered a movie contract and made a splash in Frank Capra's revered fantasy "Lost Horizon" (1937). The efforts that followed were usually not top flight, but included occasional gems like "None but the Lonely Heart" (1944), "Boomerang!" (1947), and "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), and Wyatt was usually up for the demands of her parts. Ironically, the New Jersey native's blacklisting in the early 1950s for liberal sentiments led her to concentrate on television assignments and that was likely instrumental in Wyatt joining the cast of "Father Knows Best." As one of the model TV mothers of the 1950s, she was able to overcome the limitations of the character with a disarming combination of cordiality and charm, and the program became a cultural touchstone of its time. While she displayed sufficient diversity, Wyatt was never a major Broadway or motion picture star, but her place in show business legend was secured by "Father Knows Best" and the conviviality she displayed as the matriarch of an idealized 1950s middle-class household.

Jane Waddington Wyatt was born on August 12, 1910 in Campgaw, NJ, an area where her well-off, New York City-based parents vacationed in the summer. She spent her childhood in the Gramercy Park area and adored putting on plays at home, which was instrumental in making performing her vocational goal. After attending Miss Chapin's School for Girls, the young socialite spent much time honing her acting skills with the institution's dramatic club. She continued her education at Barnard College and apprenticed at the Berkshire Playhouse, appearing in a number of its productions. The success she enjoyed with this latest round of acting convinced Wyatt to abandon college and concentrate solely on establishing a career. Ironically, the gains she made in pursuit of that goal resulted in Wyatt being removed from the social register. She first stepped on to the Broadway stage in A.A. Milne's "Give Me Yesterday" (1931), but had her first real success in that milieu with the popular farce "Dinner at Eight" (1932-33), where she replaced Margaret Sullavan and stayed with the show when it played in Chicago. Further Great White Way assignments came her way, but all were gone after fairly short runs, which encouraged Wyatt to give movies a go.

Put under a unique contract by Universal that allowed her to do stage work for part of the year, she made her film debut with a supporting role in James Whale's drama "One More Time" (1934) and moved on to play Estella in the studio's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" (1934). The following year, she wed investment broker Edgar Ward, a union that produced three children (one of whom died at a young age) and restored her social register status. It was the actress' only marriage, lasting an incredible 65 years. Wyatt's Universal pictures were fairly modest endeavors, but that changed when she was loaned to Columbia for Frank Capra's beloved fantasy "Lost Horizon" (1937). As the paramour of male lead Ronald Colman, Wyatt had a nude swimming scene that revealed little, but was quite eye-opening by the standards of the era. She accidentally cracked a rib during shooting, but any pain Wyatt endured for art was more than worth it for her career, as "Lost Horizon" really established her in Hollywood. Wyatt also made periodic returns to the stage, but, as before, the shows failed to generate the sort of response that led to a lengthy run. Focusing on movie work, Wyatt appeared in such minor, but enjoyable projects as "Kisses for Breakfast" (1941), "Hurricane Smith" (1941), and "The Kansan" (1943). Most notable was Clifford Odets' "None but the Lonely Heart" (1944), which offered a detour into drama for male lead Cary Grant, and Elia Kazan's excellent film noir "Boomerang!" (1947).

Wyatt also essayed a supporting assignment as the sister of Dorothy McGuire in Kazan's "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), a groundbreaking look at anti-Semitism. Although she was a devout Catholic, Wyatt joined several prominent stars in the Committee for the First Amendment and travelled to Washington, D.C. in 1947 to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee, which encouraged the blacklisting and general ostracizing of entertainment figures with perceived Left Wing ties. She returned to the world of film noir with "Pitfall" (1948), playing the homemaker wife of genre regular Dick Powell and the spouse of killer Louis Hayward in "House by the River" (1950). Wyatt was eventually elevated to the more intriguing femme fatale role in "The Man Who Cheated Himself" (1950), but was generally deemed miscast and ineffectual. Most of her other motion picture parts during that time were of a similarly secondary nature, but they came in solid productions with quality casts and seasoned directors. Unfortunately, Wyatt's previous stance against the blacklist came back to haunt her and she found herself unable to work in Hollywood. Following the completion of "Criminal Lawyer" (1951), she resumed New York stage performing in "The Autumn Garden" (1951), but was soon occupied for an extended period on the small screen.

After guesting on various dramatic anthologies and clearing up her blacklisting issue, Wyatt was cast on the sitcom "Father Knows Best" (CBS/NBC/ABC, 1954-1960). Adapted from a popular radio sitcom of the same name, she played the happily domesticated spouse of Robert Young, who helped him to raise their three children and deal with the trials and tribulations of life in the suburbs. While the thoroughly wholesome and largely deferential Margaret Anderson hardly seemed like a model for women in later, more progressive years, Wyatt brought considerable warmth and personality to her portrayal, making her a quintessential 1950s TV mother. Wyatt won three Primetime Emmys and Margaret became the actress' most fondly remembered character. The program had difficulty finding an audience initially and CBS decided to drop it. However, a write-in campaign convinced NBC to give the show a second try in a new timeslot. That did the trick and "Father Knows Best" was a ratings success for the next several seasons and probably would have continued on for many more if Young had not tired of his duties. Regardless, it continued to draw viewers even after production had ceased. The program had amassed such a following that reruns continued to play in primetime for three seasons before the series began a long and prosperous run in syndication.

Wyatt's television history was commemorated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame upon its establishment in 1960. She graced only a handful more movies, typified by the unremarkable likes of "The Two Little Bears" (1961) and "Never Too Late" (1965), but enjoyed a fairly regular stream of television offers, including a notable appearance as Amanda, the human mother of Vulcan science officer Spock, in the famous "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) episode "Journey to Babel." This pattern continued into the next decade, with her guesting on various programs as well as telefilms like "Amelia Earhart" (NBC, 1976) and a pair of "Father Knows Best" reunion projects. Wyatt was also given the opportunity to revisit Amanda in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), her final big screen credit. She did a six-episode stint on "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88) and had a most atypical credit via the made-for-television horror yarn "Amityville: The Evil Escapes" (NBC, 1989). Wyatt had signed on for the project despite having no knowledge of the infamous haunted house or the various films that had already been produced, but gave a game turn nonetheless. A guest star outing in an episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" (ABC, 1992-93) proved to be Wyatt's final credit. Her retirement years were devoted to charity work for the March of Dimes until a stroke at age 85 left her health in variable condition. She lived for more than a decade afterward, dying in her sleep of natural causes at her Bel-Air California home on Oct. 20, 2006.

By John Charles

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