Curious Career of
....a studio portrait underscoring
her respectable, patrician image
with RONALD COLMAN
in a cinema classic from 1937,
Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon."
with her TV family in the beloved "Father Knows Best."
From left: Lauren Chapin, Wyatt, Robert Young, Elinor Donahue,
From movie leading lady
to TV's favorite 'Mom'
By JIM BAWDEN
Like many children
of the Fifties, I must have given my mother anguish for not being
more like Jane Wyatt in "Father Knows Best."
One of TVs most famous ever moms, Wyatt's Margaret Anderson
was a cut above Barbara Billingsley's June Cleaver ("Leave
It To Beaver") and Donna Reed's Donna Stone ("The Donna
Reed Show") with her regal bearing and patrician airs. A
graduate of Barnard College and a member of the Social Register,
Wyatt was a warm and kindly person, attributes that readily translated
into a long movie and TV career.
I first interviewed her at Cornwall, Ontario in 1972 as she was
making a TV movie version of "Tom Sawyer" (1973) opposite
Buddy Ebsen and Vic Morrow at Upper Canada Village. She was well
cast as Aunt Polly but after work became one of the guys as she
attended hockey games at the local ice rink.
Telephone interviews followed and we reconnected in 1984 when
we met for lunch in Los Angeles. Wyatt had left a sick bed to
make the appointment but said a promise was a promise.
A year before she died --it was 2005-- she sent an autographed
picture of herself, uncharacteristically decked out in 1942 finery
with the comment, I wish I looked like this today!
Here are highlights of our conversations:
BAWDEN: How do you feel about your identification as one of TVs
WYATT: I love that I succeeded at that part. But you understand
I was never Margaret Anderson. I didnt stay at home. I
was out working most days. It was a part I was playing. I had
help to dust and cook, I was too busy. Once when the show was
on I took my own two boys out for a Christmas treat and a lady
stopped me and said Thank you so much, Mrs. Anderson,
for staying at home with your family. She didnt
seem to notice I was with different children. I thanked her and
went on my way. How could I tell her that I had servants to help
me at home and that Margaret was merely a fictional character?
BAWDEN: Did you realize that part would change your career?
WYATT: What career? I had been blacklisted in movies for several
years. No, not formally there just were no offers after
I made "My Blue Heaven" (1950) and "Criminal Lawyer"
(1951). That left live TV, which was fighting the blacklist and
dear Bob Montgomery hated that, although he was very right wing,
you know. And he kept using me on his show, "Robert Montgomery
I was in New York doing one of his live broadcasts when Bob Young
sent over a script for a new TV series called "Father Knows
Best." Hed been doing it for years on radio, but wanted
a better known actress as his TV co-star. Montgomery had suggested
me but I didnt want to do a series.
When I came home, my husband said hed read it and thought
it pretty good and told me to do it because my inactivity was
driving him crazy. But I chose a Broadway play, "The Autumn
Garden," which was a flop, so when I returned the script
was still there. I took it because there was nothing else.
BAWDEN: It had a shaky start?
WYATT: Thats putting it mildly. To save money, CBS insisted
they use the old radio scripts and here Bob Young was something
of a ninny and on TV he looked uncomfortable. We had a talk and
I told him to go back to his original conception for TVto
make Jim Anderson warm and friendly and not a boob. In todays
parlance, it would be dubbed a dramedy. But at the end of the
first season our tobacco sponsor P. Lorrilard cancelled us and
I thought that was it. Then Scott Paper Company took us on and
we switched to NBC for three seasons (1955-58) and thats
when we matured into a hit.
Then we returned to CBS for the last two
years. Bob decided to kill it when it was at its highest popularity
rating. CBS retorted with a new plot that had Elinor Donahue
married and living over the garage with her new groom, but Bob
said no. Oh, how I was scared we might do a seventh season. By
that time I was going crazy. To keep myself sane I read the entire
Old Testament during time off on set just to keep in touch with
something other than our show.
BAWDEN: Young also owned the show?
WYATT: And reaped huge dividends during all those rerun seasons.
CBS kept us going years after we had finished. Then it was syndicated,
station to station. I couldnt escape it! We only got paid
as actors for the first six reruns. We did it as a one camera
show, one a week--had to because the three children had to have
four hours of schooling a day. Bob also produced it with his
partner Eugene B. Rodney. You know Bob is very taciturn and has
a great work ethic and this was translated to the kids who hero
I got close to Billy Gray because he was
the same age as my sons. Elinor Donahue was a bit older and very
precocious. Little Lauren Chapin came from a tempestuous background.
When she married, I paid for the reception. There was nobody
else to do it.
BAWDEN: You hardly were a subservient wife.
WEYATT: Right on! I was the one who ran that family, Jim Anderson
was always at work. Margaret ran everyuthing. One episode she
was mad at the family for the whole time. And by the way I never
did vacuuming with my pearls on. That must have been on "Leave
It To Beaver."
BAWDEN: But you had quite an impact.
WYATT: A man stopped me recently and said hed been raised
in an orphanage and hed fantasized Margaret Anderson was
his mother. Then I went to a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concertStephen
Stills is a second cousin and the whole audience got up
shouting, Margaret! Margaret! Now that was
quite an experience!
BAWDEN: When did you know the series had been on too long?
WYATT: At a CBS affiliates meeting. I waltzed in and over to
Bob Young and fixed his tie. His real life wife, Betty, looked
daggers at me. I got the picture. I had become Margaret Anderson!
BAWDEB: Lets go back to your beginnings. You have an ancestor
who signed the Declaration of Independence?
WYATT: Oh, yes! Philip Livingston, on my fathers side.
On my mothers side there was Rufus Sewell, founder of Columbia
University and ambassador to England, I guess we were posh. I
was the second of four children (born on Aug. 12, 1910) and I
attended Chapin School in New York City, then I went to Barnard
College for two terms. Yes, its also true when I went into
acting I got banned from the Social Registry. Then when I married
husband Edgar I got restored! I made my Broadway debut in A.A.
Milnes play "Give Me Yesterday" in 1931, the
height of the Depression remember. I had brief runs in several
plays including "The Joyous Season" (1934) and "The
Bishop Misbehaves" (1935).
BAWDEN: You were stage crazy?
WYATT: Still am. But the talkies decimated Broadway and then
the Depression finished the job. I accepted a short term deal
from Universal and was cast in Jimmy Whales movie, "One
More River" opposite Colin Clive and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
He said I sounded very posh and it got grand reviews, but nobody
in America came to see it. People simply had no money. Then I
was cast as Estella in "Great Expectations" (1934),
but it was very humdrum. The director, Stuart Walker, didnt
understand it. Our Pip was Philips Holmes and he was very nervous.
We re-used streets from "Frankenstein." But there were
two actors in it Francis L. Sullivan and Valerie Hobsonwho
also were in the marvelous 1946 version. Valerie was Becky here,
Estella in 46 and Francis was the lawyer Jaggers both times.
was the y;oung leading lady
of this 1934 version of Charles
Dickens' "Great Expectdatioins."
or not, Wyatt occasionally posed for pinup photos long before
she became America's favorite TV Mom. As you can see, she had
BAWDEN: Can y;ou tell me what you rmemeber about these films
on the list of your movies?
WYATT: "Were Only Human"?
Absolutely no recollection, although I know it's on my resume.
"Lost Horizon"? I had flopped
in movies, was trying out for another Broadway play, when (director)
Frank Capra phoned me up and asked me to visit him at Columbia.
He said he needed an unknown, somebody cheap, but a girl with
acting experience. He wanted as Sondra a girl who looked like
shed always lived in Shangri-La. I made a test with Ronnie
Colman, who was so sweet and helpful, and I got it.
BAWDEN: I read it wasnt such a hit at the time of its original
release in 1937.
EWYATT: Harry Cohn, head of Columbia told me the cost was just
over $2 million, roughly half Columbias entire production
budget for the entire year. The first preview there was nervous
laughing and Frank was convinced it was a bust. He cut out the
first two reels of the Chinese riots, we ran it again and the
audience cheered. Ronnie made it work, you saw everything through
his eyes. I was never a fan of those huge Shangri-La sets but
the movie worked as long as Ronnie was front and center.
BAWDEN: Today its a classic.
WYATT: I have my ideas about that .It came and went uneventfully
at the time. Ronnie never even got an Oscar nomination. But today
we can see it as one of the greatest productions from Hollywoods
heroic age. Its because all those great character starsEdward
Everett Horton, Tommy Mitchell, H. B. Warner are no longer around.
In 1937 they were seen in picture after picture. Now we sit back
and appreciate them because that kind of acting will never be
BAWDEN: But you did not become a big star from it. Why?
WYATT: Oh, I blew it. I did myself in as far as screen stardom
was concerned. I haughtily refused a Columbia contract and I
went back East and the play flopped. When I did come back, all
I got were "B"s. My momentum was destroyed. I did that
all by myself. My dreams of becoming a big Broadway star never
did come true.
BAWDEN: In 1941 you hit Warners with a comedy "Weekend For
Three." Im wondering if you bumped into Jane Wyman.
Do you ever get confused with her because of the smilarity of
WYATT: I dont remember meeting her at that time. But I
got many production memos intended for her. I adore her as an
actress but at that time she was also doing "B" features.
I would have loved to have done "Johnny Belinda"!
BAWDEN: In 1943 you made two pictures at the same time?
WYATT: Yes, two programmers for producer Poppy Sherman. He loved
to squeeze every last cent out of his productions. Made mostly
westerns,you know. So there I was doing "Buckskin Frontier"
and "The Kansan," both with Richard Dix, a dear, sweet
man but rather overaged to still be a star. Wed shoot all
the scenes for both pictures at one location and then go on to
the next. I wore the same clothes, hair style etc. in both. So
did Dick. He was so professional about it. Ive always considered
"The Kansan" the more important of the two. Did they
ever appear together on a double bill, Im wondering? Albert
Dekker and Vic Jory were in both, cast in virtually the same
parts. To my surprise, western fans write to me all the time
about them. It was grand fun!
poster fo;r Wyatt's western with Richard Dix, "The Kansan."
At right: Wyatt with co-star
Cary Grant in "None But
the Lonely Heart" (1944).
BAWDEN: Then came an "A" picture, "None But The
Lonely Heart" (1944) opposite Cary Grant.
WYATT: One of my favorites. The nominal leading lady was a very
gorgeous British girl, June Duprez. First day of shooting Cary
strolls up to me and says this is the first time on screen hes
ever played himself. Cary truly burrowed inside Ernie Mott. He
should have gotten the Oscar. But his film fans hated him as
less than glamorous and he never tried that again. It was set
in the Depression and now Americans were worried about the war.
Do you know who was nervous? Ethel Barrymore as the mother. Hadnt
acted in movies in 12 years. Was over the top until Cary worked
with her and got her to be minimalist. She got the supporting
Oscar because of his generosity in showcasing her. But I didnt
like (playwright) Clifford Odets direction. It needed the
sure touch of a Jack Ford. Clifford wrote it, but he was trying
too hard to direct. The camera kept moving all over the place.
It was a box office failure, but after all Cary already had two
big hits in 1944: "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Destination
BAWDEN: You were then in another big one, "Gentlemans
Agreement" (1947), but in a cameo.
WYATT: Ill tell you how that happened. Id lost my
momentum again after "Lonely Heart." I had a baby,
Chris, then I did yet another play that flopped. Then the only
movie I could get was a "B," "Strange Conquest."
I was at a party chattering up a storm with Dorothy McGuire and
(director) Elia Kazan saw me. He was then casting "Genbtleman's
Agreement" and needed somebody to play Dorothys sister.
He was very small and very intense and he came over and offered
the part to me, promising that in his next picture, "Boomerang,"
Id have a big juicy co-lead. I played sort of an anti-Semite,
which I liked doing, and that got me into trouble eventually.
Then Gadge (Kazan's nickname) came forth with "Boomerang,"
which was shot almost entirely in Connecticut. It was based on
a Readers Digest article by Richard Murphy. Dana Andrews,
who was huge at the time, was a crusading district attorney investigating
the trial of a priest. It was hard being on location in those
days because the equipment was hardly portable. But there were
fine actors in it Sam Levene, Lee J,. Cobb, Karl Malden,
BAWDEN: And you got into trouble because of it?
WYATT: Thats putting it mildly. I was warned I might have
to appear before the House Committee On Un-American Activities.
I know they were investigating me. I asked Harry Cohn about it
and he said hed received a letter from them charging Id
done plays by Voltaire and Chekhov! Harry said both sounded faintly
Marxist to him! I said let em try to bring me down! After
all, my ancestors included a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
I never had any political inclinations except those that involved
my beloved Catholic church. Yes, I had gone to Washington in
1947 with a planeload of celebrities protesting HUACbut
Humphrey Bogart, June Havoc, Danny Kaye were also on board. And
HUAC seemed to back off. But later I learned I was grey listed.
I was guilty by reason of association.
BAWDEN: Meanwhile, you made a dandy film noir "Pitfall"
(1948) at RKO.
WYATT: Im still asked about that one. Because it did not
have a tacked on happy ending. Dick Powell was terrific as an
insurance investigator and Liz Scott was a parolee being preyed
on by Raymond Burr. We shot a lot of it out in the valley and
in some scenes youll see the new housing tracts. I even
did a scene in the May Company store on Wilshire Boulevard where
Liz was supposed to work. I did see it recently and thought it
was so whiteno ethnics at all--which was L.A. in those
days. Its an artifact of the Forties.
WYATT in the respected
film noir called
BAWDEN: Then it was back to Warners.
WYATT: For "Task Force" (1949). Gary Cooper had casting
approval and he teased me hed actually asked for Jane Wyman.
(Writer-director) Delmer Daves wrote it as an attempt to show
where the (aircraft) carriers had come from. Coops character
had been advocating them since the Thirties. My character was
married to his best buddy, who died in one experiment, and now
shes afraid shell lose Coop, too. After my first
take with the big lug I told Dell, Guess well
have to do that one again. He was asleep on the job.
Dell laughed and told me to sit in when the takes were unspooled
the next day. So Coop had under acted me and stolen the scene
effortlessly. There was just a flicker of his eyebrow, He kept
saying on set, Too much! I call him a minimalist,
the best Ive ever worked with. His philosophy was to get
the audience to work along with you. Best acting advice Ive
BAWDEN: During the "Father Knows Best" years you only
had a chance to make one movie.
WYATT: In 1957 I flew with son Michael to Salzburg where Douglas
Sirk was filming "Interlude" with June Allyson and
Rosanno Brazzi. It was a remake of an Irene Dunne starrer, "When
Tomorrow Comes." Universal said all my scenes could be shot
within three weeks, so Id get home for the next season
of "Father Know Best." And it was wonderful visiting
all those historic sites. The movie was just plain awful. Nobody
BAWDEN: After "Father Knows Best," what happened?
WYATT: I was typed as a TV star. I did one movie, a little thing
with Eddie Albert (1961s "Two Little Bears").
But then TV movies came along and I got one of the first ones,
1964s "See How They Run." Did a lot of those
and guest spots. The movie business had changed too much for
me to be a part of it. I was Amanda, Mr. Spocks mom, on
"Star Trek," I still get letters about that. And I
got to do the 1986 movie, "Star Trek IV." My first
day and a young man comes up and says, Miss Wyatt, I
think you knew my grandfather. Im Frank Capra III!
Wyatt plays a scene with
"Spock" (Leonard Nimoy), left, and "Doc"
(DeForest Kelley), in the memorable episode of TV's
"Star Trek" in which she
appeared as the mother
of Mr. Spock.
The much older Wyatt reprising
her original role in the 1986
feature film "Star Trek IV: The
There were two unfortunate TV movie reunions of the "Father
Knows Best" cast, but we had changed so it was rather sad.
I told Bob to stop revisiting the past and he agreed. Then Bob
got another series, "Marcus Welby," and I figured,
well, thats one show Ill never be asked on. But they
wrote a pretty good part for me as an upscale designer. That
was in 1974 and Bobs professionalism was still there.
Ive been Norman Lloyds wife on "St. Elsewhere."
But my favorite TV part was on Hollywood Television Theatre called
"Neighbors." Andrew Duggan and I were white old racists
contemplating selling their home to a black couple. Cicely Tyson
played the black wife. It was my chance to kick the establishment
just one more time. Im so out of it that when they offered
me "Amityville" opposite Patty Duke (in 1989), I thought
it was a Civil War story.
And then I did "Driving Miss Daisy"
on the West Coast stage opposite Ted Lange from "The Love
Boat." Im still around and still kicking.
NOTE: My last telephone call from Wyatt in 2000 contained
the sad news husband Edgar had died a day before their 65th wedding
anniversary. Asked to define the secret of her success, shed
told me, Being a good wife and mother and a strong Catholic
are the big things. The icing on the cake was the career.
Jane Wyatt died Oct. 20, 2006, of heart trouble at her Bel Air
estate, aged 96.
©2012 by Jim Bawden.
This column first posted Aug. 20, 2012.
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