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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Betty, Bud, Kathy & Spock’s mom (1910-2006)

I doubt that anyone is actually confused by this, but let’s get it straight anyway. The veteran actor who died on Friday at the age of 96 was not the woman who won an Oscar for Johnny Belinda, married and divorced Ronald Reagan, played the mean aunt in Pollyanna and starred in the 1980s primetime soap Falcon Crest. That, of course, was Jane Wyman, who is still very much with us at the mere age of 92.

There was a time, when I was very young, that I did get Jane Wyatt and Jane Wyman confused. Aside from very similar names, they began appearing in Hollywood movies within a couple years of each other, and they had somewhat similar head shapes and (eventually) hair color. But while Wyman is probably more respected professionally, Wyatt was probably more beloved, largely because of the kind of roles she played. There was something about her bright, kindly smile that destined her to play supportive women, usually to men who deserved the support. According to her New York Times obituary, however, “she confessed she would have been happier ‘playing the murderer or the heavy.’”

Jane Wyatt appeared in more than 40 feature films, starting with the 1934 version of Great Expectations, but as with many actors who were working regularly in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, we don’t remember most of the movies. The one that stands out is her fifth one, which was released in 1937. Based on James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon was different from any other film directed by Frank Capra. I sometimes wonder whether that movie was a major influence in the fascination that many westerners have long had with Tibet and with Buddhism. The Tibet created by Capra on film was an idealized utopia that was largely devoid of actual Tibetans. A group led by a British diplomat, played by Ronald Colman, who is helping them escape from revolution in China, has its plane hijacked, and it crashes in the Himalayas. There they find Shangri-La, where the climate is always perfect, there are no human foibles, and which was founded by a missionary, who is now its 250-year-old High Lama. The High Lama was played by Sam Jaffe, who would become familiar to 1960s TV audiences as Dr. Zorba, the mentor of Ben Casey. If Shangri-La was not seductive enough, Colman—who has been selected to replace the High Lama, who is finally dying—is enchanted by the radiantly beautiful and innocently uninhibited Sondra, played by Wyatt. She never really made as big an impression on the big screen after that classic film. Inexplicably and ill-advisedly, the movie was remade in 1973. In addition to adding color (which the original did not have), the remake also had songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Colman’s and Wyatt’s parts were played by Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann, leading a cast that included Charles Boyer, John Gielgud, Michael York, Sally Kellerman, Olivia Hussey, Bobby Van and George Kennedy. And, yes, it was as bad as it sounds.

Wyatt did appear in a number of other worthwhile movies. She had an unrequited love for Cary Grant in Clifford Odets’s None But the Lonely Heart and also appeared in two Elia Kazan movies in 1947: Gentleman’s Agreement, which tackled the subject of anti-Semitism, and Boomerang!, a fact-based drama about a rush to judgment in a murder case. She was Gary Cooper’s wife in the war movie Task Force and David Wayne’s wife in the musical comedy My Blue Heaven.

She became best known, however, as a 1950s TV mom. She played a wife and mother in a small town of the American heartland (inevitably called Springfield) with the solid Scandinavian name Margaret Anderson. As with other shows of its type and time, her household chores were as vague as her husband Robert Young’s job. While hanging about the house, she dressed as primly as the other TV moms, but there was something extra posh about her. Her voice and diction were such that I always thought that she must be English—or at least Canadian. But she was born in New Jersey and grew up in New York City. Her high tone had the unexpected effect of making other equally well-coifed and coutured TV moms, like Barbara Billingsley in Leave It to Beaver, seem almost down-to-earth and ordinary by comparison. Always deferential to her husband, she provided the sentimental heart to balance his firm but loving principles, when it came to guiding their nicknamed brood (Princess, Bud and Kitten) to eventual responsible adulthood. The crises were regular and reliably resolved, with the surging theme music slipping in during the final moments, to let you know it was time to get a lump in your throat. Father Knows Best was on TV for only six years in its original run, moving from CBS to NBC and back again, but in memory it seemed to be on a lot longer—no doubt drawn out by years of syndicated reruns. In 1977 Wyatt reprised the role of Margaret Anderson in the obligatory TV reunion movies, allowing us to see exactly how all that idealized 1950s child-rearing worked out. (Not quite as perfectly as we would have been led to expect.) If Barbara Billingsley is the 1950s TV mom who first comes to our mind, Wyatt had something that Billingsley didn’t. In fact, she had three of them: Emmies for playing her maternal character.

If the character of Margaret Anderson is some sort of TV icon, Wyatt got the chance to portray another one of sorts, another TV mom for the ages. In a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek series, viewers got a sense of déjà vu when, in an episode called “Journey to Babel,” they recognized Amanda, the wife of a Vulcan personage called Sarek (played by Mark Lenard), as the same woman who had mothered the Anderson clan in Springfield. Further, it was revealed that, despite of the icy formality between Sarek and the Enterprise’s science officer, Spock, Sarek and Amanda were Spock’s parents. Amanda was the human mother who made Spock a half-breed and gave him a biologically human side that his Vulcan side constantly resisted. Thus the extraterrestrial character of Spock was given some inner turmoil and depth. (I read years ago that the creators of Star Trek actually licensed the Marvel Comics character the Sub-Mariner—an undersea prince, who similarly had pointed ears and one human parent—as a basis for Spock.) If raising three all-American kids in the 1950s was a handful for Margaret Anderson, imagine what it must have been like for Amanda to have a Vulcan husband and son, both devoid of emotion or empathy. That has to be even worse than being married to a Swede. Wyatt reprised the role of Amanda in the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Her pop icon status clearly made Wyatt—who had been a regular on TV dramas before her Father Knows Best gig—a welcome guest star on a number of television shows throughout the second half of the 20th century. She showed up on programs like Love, American Style, Here Come the Brides, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, Quincy, Happy Days, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. She had a recurring role on St. Elsewhere as Katherine Auschlander, pairing her with Norman Lloyd, with whom she co-starred as a pair of lovelorn assistants to pediatrician Dana Andrews in the 1948 movie No Minor Vices. She even made a guest appearance on the show starring her erstwhile Springfield husband, Marcus Welby, M.D.

Wyatt also appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies, notably 1975’s Katherine, in which she and Art Carney played the parents of Sissy Spacek, whose political convictions lead her to become a domestic terrorist. Coming soon after the Patty Hearst kidnapping, it caught a moment of fear in American society and brought Wyatt’s American mom persona full circle. Late in the day (in 1970), for one TV flick, Wyatt switched from maternal to virginal, playing one of three nuns (along with Carol Lynley and Lois Nettleton) who are kidnapped by escaped convicts Robert Conrad and Lee Majors. Wyatt also appeared as Aunt Polly in a forgettable 1973 version of Tom Sawyer and, along with Patty Duke, in the 1989 fourth installment of the Amityville series, Amityville: The Evil Escapes. In that one, Wyatt was the grandmother in California who has the misfortune of plugging in a second-hand lamp that formerly resided at the original Amityville house, allowing the evil to become bicoastal.

Although it is not for us to judge, it is kind of nice to think that Jane Wyatt may actually have been as good a wife and mother in real life as the ones she so often played during her six-decade career. In any event, she was married to the same man for 65 years, until his death in 2000.

-S.L., 26 October 2006

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