Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Belinda McDonald & Angela Channing (1914-2007)

Among the many interesting but pointless questions one may ponder in this world is this one. If Jane Wyman had not won that Oscar for Johnny Belinda, would she have spent the 1980s in the White House instead of presiding over a somewhat trashy primetime soap opera?

To their credit, Wyman and Ronald Reagan always maintained a dignified silence, at least in public, about the breakup of their glittering 1940s Hollywood marriage (although Wyman did issue a very gracious statement on the event of his death), but the story was always that she outgrew him professionally because of her resounding acting success while his career was going nowhere. Whether that accurately sums things up or not, I suppose that it is every man’s fondest fantasy: having the woman who dumped him have to watch him become the most important person in the world. Which means that, when she dies, all her obituaries will inevitably mention his name in the first paragraph.

If there is any doubt about Wyman’s range as an actor, you just have to look at the two roles she is best known for. She won the Academy Award for playing a deaf-mute teenager even though she was well into her 30s. It was the kind of role that serious actors die for. With no lines to speak, everything had to be conveyed by her face and, especially, her eyes. It was the kind of saintly performance that we would also see when she played, say, the nursemaid in Curtis Bernhardt’s The Blue Veil or the Ray Milland’s patient girlfriend in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. But, in the role for which she is perhaps best known by people alive today, she was a crafty and hardhearted villainess. But before she was a 1980s TV matriarch, she had long since demonstrated how cold and mean she could be in roles like Aunt Polly in Disney’s Pollyanna.

The prominence of her best known roles tends to obscure just how many other notable movies she starred in. Let’s have a glance at the list. There was, of course, the movie in which she met her third (of five) husbands: the military school comedy Brother Rat, not to mention its sequel Brother Rat and a Baby. There was a Tugboat Annie movie, the Kay Kyser comedy My Favorite Spy, a turn as Gregory Peck’s wife in The Yearling, a Tennesse Williams adaptation (The Glass Menagerie, opposite Kirk Douglas), a turn as the wife of Will Rogers in a 1952 biopic, and a couple of Douglas Sirk tearjerkers (Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both opposite Rock Hudson). Not only was she nominated for the Oscar four times (winning once), but she also sang an Oscar-winning song (with Bing Crosby), “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” in Frank Capra’s Here Comes the Groom. But despite her decades of stardom in the movies, Wyman was no stranger to the small screen before her gig as Angela Channing. She had her own anthology series in the 1950s, as well as appearing on various other quality ones. And, as the years wore on, like many actors of a certain age, she took guest appearances on all kinds of TV series, including stints on things The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels. And she played yet one more mother after Falcon Crest, as Jane Seymour’s mother on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Since these commentaries are really meant to be about me, let me note my own insignificant tenuous connections to this much esteemed actor. My own less-than-six-degrees of separation from her is that I happened to attend high school with the young man who would go on to be her son-in-law (as well as that of the future president). Harder to confess publicly, however, is the fact that, just as the passing of Barbara Bel Geddes caused me to discuss the fact that I actually watched Dallas, it gets worse. Back in those pre-TiVo days, devious network executives did despicable things like following a hit trashy show like Dallas with another trashy soap opera so that American viewers, in their inertia, would stay on their couches and watch that show as well. It eventually worked with me and, yes, I wound up watching Falcon Crest as well. The show was so deliberately tacky that it was nearly a Dallas spoof. For one thing, where Dallas was about a family fighting for control of a major oil company, the intrigue in Falcon Crest was all about a winery. As the seasons wore on, the limitations of this premise became obvious, as the writers came up ever more outlandish plot ideas. At one point, the fictional Tuscany Valley (a thinly disguised Napa Valley) was the center of a plot by Nazi war criminals to take over the world. But there were a few reasons to watch, apart from the fact that the couch was so darn comfortable. One was, of course, Wyman who made an extremely watchable cross between J.R. Ewing and Miss Ellie. Another was Susan Sullivan as Wyman’s good girl niece-in-law. While everyone else was chewing the scenery to compensate for the nonsensical storylines, her character always seemed to be real—no matter how unreal all the stuff going on around her was. Her husband was played by Robert Foxworth, in high-powered macho mode. As an ostensible good guy, his character was generally pretty boring, which I believe is why he quit the series. But the writers then got revenge on him. They retroactively made his character more interesting, giving him a posthumous backstory with all kinds of secrets and elaborate intrigue.

Yet another reason to watch, however, was a continual parade of veteran Hollywood figures, likely drawn by Wyman’s presence, in guest or recurring roles. These included Cesar Romero, Mel Ferrer, Rod Taylor, Cliff Robertson, Robert Stack, John Saxon, Kim Novak, Lana Turner, Gina Lollobrigida, Ursula Andress, Ellen Geer and numerous others. Even Paul Revere & the Raiders frontman Mark Lindsay Chapman was on for eight episodes. Fernando Lamas didn’t live long enough to have a guest appearance, but his son Lorenzo was a regular for the series’ entire run. The series also provided early roles for the likes of Jonathan Frakes and Mariska Hargitay. And for most of the show’s run, the leading man was one David Selby, known now and forever as the immortal Quentin Collins of Dark Shadows fame. In the interest of balance, Andrea Thompson (later a regular on Babylon 5) also had a role for a while.

Does all of this make me feel less embarrassed about having watched Falcon Crest? Not really. On the other hand, one has absolutely no reason to apologize for watching any Jane Wyman performance, no matter the medium or the genre. For six decades, she was a consummate professional.

Homer Bedloe (1905-2007)

Okay, I’m only about two months late with this. But, as I (all too) frequently like to say, better late than never. I missed this veteran actor’s passing (on July 9), as I was distracted with other things. But he deserves better. You may not know his name (it’s Charles Lane) but, unless you are very young, you almost certainly know his face. As a character/supporting actor, he did not have the prominence of a Jane Wyman, but he had a longer career: seven decades, according to the IMDB, beginning with three uncredited roles in 1931 and ending with an appearance in a 2006 short film, The Night Before Christmas, in which he reads the classic Clement Moore poem, at the age of 101. Seven decades, coincidentally, is also how long his marriage lasted. His wife Ruth preceded him in death by four and a half years.

His severe face and raspy/nasal voice pretty much guaranteed that Lane would be playing fuddy duddy authority figures or functionaries, particularly stickler accountants and tax collectors. And play them he did, frequently and endlessly. IMDB lists no fewer than 341 acting roles in movies and TV shows. As such, he was frequently the sour foil for antic-prone comedy characters. He was repeatedly cast by his friend Lucille Ball and appeared in the famous episode of I Love Lucy in which Little Ricky was born. He was a father of six girls, who learns in the waiting room of the maternity ward that his wife has delivered female triplets. He was also a regular on Paul Henning sitcoms. On The Beverly Hillbillies, he was the crafty landlord Foster Phinney. In the role he may be best remembered for by baby boomers, on Petticoat Junction, he was the mean-spirited railroad executive Homer Bedloe, who was constantly plotting to shut down the Hooterville Cannonball. He also appeared several times (always as a different character) on Bewitched and played judges on Soap and Mork & Mindy. Before that he appeared on Topper, The Real McCoys, Dobie Gillis, Mister Ed, Get Smart, Gomer Pyle, The Munsters, The Flying Nun and Maude. In other words, you name the sitcom and he was there. And let us not overlook the fact that he played an antique dealer on the sixth episode of the abortive 1990s revival of Dark Shadows.

Lane was no less ubiquitous on the big screen. That’s another list that goes on and on. Let’s just stipulate that his mean character credentials were sealed by more than a half-dozen movies he appeared in directed by Frank Capra. The most notable ones: he was the tax collector harassing the clan headed by Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take It With You, and he was paired with Barrymore again eight years later when he achieved the pinnacle of callousness. In It’s a Wonderful Life, he was the rent collector for mean old Mr. Potter.

-S.L., 13 September 2007

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