Jane Wyman, 90; Oscar winner, first wife of Reagan

Special to The Times

Jane Wyman, the Academy Award-winning actress whose long and distinguished film and television career was nearly overshadowed by her real-life role as the first wife of actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, died Monday. She was 90.

Wyman, who had been in failing health for several years, died at her home in Rancho Mirage, said Michael Mesnick, her longtime business manager.

Wyman’s son, radio personality Michael Reagan, said in a statement: “I have lost a loving mother; my children, Cameron and Ashley, have lost a loving grandmother; my wife, Colleen, has lost a loving friend she called Mom; and Hollywood has lost the classiest lady to ever grace the silver screen.”

Veteran Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, who first met Wyman in the late 1930s through his friendship with Reagan, told The Times that Wyman “was not only a fine actress but a darling, dear lady.”


“I think she was an inspiration to all young actresses because she started as a minor actress and worked her way through the ranks to become not only one of Hollywood’s prominent leading ladies but an Academy Award winner,” he said.

After arriving in Hollywood from St. Louis in the mid-1930s, Wyman learned her craft as a contract player before getting a chance at the major roles that would secure her reputation as a star. She won her Oscar playing a deaf-mute rape victim in 1948’s “Johnny Belinda” and was nominated for her performances in “The Yearling” (1946), “The Blue Veil” (1951) and “Magnificent Obsession” (1954).

In the 1950s, the early days of television, she staked out a career in that medium with her own half-hour dramatic anthology show. And years after her film career waned, she became familiar to millions more television viewers as the matriarch-you-love-to-hate in the long-running 1980s nighttime soap opera “Falcon Crest.”

Still, hardly ever was Wyman’s name mentioned in print without also referring to the second of her three husbands.

At the time they met in 1938, Reagan was an actor under contract with Warner Bros. After a well-publicized courtship, they wed Jan. 26, 1940, at Wee Kirk O’ the Heather Church at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

The couple had two daughters, one of whom died after a premature birth. The other, Maureen Reagan, died of melanoma in 2001 at age 60. They also adopted a son, Michael, before divorcing in 1948.

Theirs would have been just another Hollywood marriage that landed on the rocks had Reagan not gone on to become governor of California and the 40th president of the United States.

Reagan, who was by then married to Nancy Davis and had two more children, was the first American president to have been divorced. Wyman had the dubious honor of being the first ex-wife of an American president.


Much to Wyman’s irritation, she was the subject of constant questioning about Reagan, despite her well-known refusal to speak of him because she considered it “bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives.” She was known to get up and leave an interview if a writer brought up his name.

“I made 86 films and 350 television shows,” she told Newsday in 1989. “I’ve been in this business 54 years.”

Rarely did she break her silence about her former husband, with the exception of a brief statement issued after his death on June 5, 2004: “America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man.”

She met Reagan when she played his girlfriend in “Brother Rat” in 1938 and appeared with him in the 1940 sequel, “Brother Rat and a Baby,” and two other films, “Tugboat Annie Sails Again” and “An Angel From Texas” (both 1940). They had uncredited bit parts playing themselves in “It’s a Great Feeling,” which was released after their separation.


During divorce proceedings, Wyman -- who under the laws then in place was obligated to give cause for their separation -- said she didn’t share Reagan’s interest in politics and was bored by the constant talk about it. The divorce came at a time when her career was soaring and his was declining. She also had been linked with “Johnny Belinda” co-star Lew Ayres, and it is unclear whether Reagan was referring to the film or to Ayres when he wryly commented at the time, “I think I’ll name ‘Johnny Belinda’ as co-respondent.’ ”

Reagan’s 1990 autobiography, “An American Life,” mentions his marriage to Wyman only to say that it had produced “two wonderful children” but that it “didn’t work out.”

With her brown eyes, turned-up nose and signature dark hairdo -- a pageboy with bangs -- Wyman was a familiar face to millions of fans and a prominent member of Old Hollywood. Her co-stars ranged from Gregory Peck in “The Yearling” to the young Rock Hudson, whose first starring role was opposite Wyman in “Magnificent Obsession.” She also starred with Hudson in “All That Heaven Allows,” which was the inspiration for writer-director Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” in 2002.

In the lighthearted 1951 film “Here Comes the Groom,” Wyman and co-star Bing Crosby sang a duet of the Oscar-winning song “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”


Her other starring roles included the 1953 screen version of Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel “So Big,” opposite Sterling Hayden, and “Miracle in the Rain,” a 1956 World War II love story with Van Johnson. She was the stern aunt won over by Hayley Mills in 1960’s “Pollyanna.”

Wyman’s last major film was with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in “How to Commit Marriage” in 1969. The remainder of her acting career was primarily in television, highlighted by her starring role on “Falcon Crest” on CBS. The role gave Wyman an opportunity to break away from her nice-girl image and play a female power broker intent on ruling over her family of winemakers at whatever cost.

“Falcon Crest” ran for nine seasons, peaking in popularity in 1983-84 and ending in 1990 after Wyman’s character had spent much of the year in a coma.

Wyman was born Sarah Jane Mayfield Fulks in St. Joseph, Mo., on Jan. 5, 1917. Her father died when she was young, and she was raised by her mother, who had ambitions for her daughter to be in Hollywood. Wyman attended the University of Missouri and for a time was a radio singer under the name of Jane Durrell.


Wyman got her start in films in the chorus of a 1932 Busby Berkeley movie beside other then-unknowns including Betty Grable and Paulette Goddard. After a string of films in which she was “third from the right in the front row of the chorus,” she graduated to B movies playing, as Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper once said, “brassy dames whose most incisive piece of repartee was, ‘Oh, yeah?’ ” She changed her name to Wyman when she went under contract at Warner Bros. in 1936.

Like many actresses of the day, the light-haired Wyman at first bleached her hair Jean Harlow blond, but she later dyed it dark brown in order to be taken more seriously. She finally got noticed by Billy Wilder, who cast her opposite Ray Milland in the melodrama “The Lost Weekend” (1945), about a would-be writer on a boozy weekend in New York City. At last she had gotten the kind of role she had always wanted, and she didn’t waste her opportunity. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1946.

Her next major role was as Orry Baxter, the stern mother in “The Yearling,” which earned her an Oscar nomination and completed her transformation into serious actress and leading lady.

“Mother’s career consisted mostly of one depressingly serious part after another,” Maureen Reagan wryly wrote in her 1989 memoir, “First Father, First Daughter.”


In 1948, Wyman was cast in “Johnny Belinda” as a deaf-mute farm girl who is raped. To help her better play her character, she plugged her ears during filming, and at home she rarely spoke, preferring to use sign language, according to her son’s 1988 memoir, “On the Outside Looking In.”

“I learned the all-important thing: A deaf person hears with her eyes, just as a blind person sees with his ears,” Wyman told Hedda Hopper.

Though not everyone liked the movie -- film historian and essayist David Thomson has called it an “evasive, slick sob story” and “uncut corn” -- her performance was universally praised. The New York Post called it “surpassingly beautiful in its slow, luminous awakening of joy and understanding,” and even Thomson said that Wyman’s performance and her “soulful, wide-eyed face” established her as a star of women’s pictures.

Wyman was married to businessman Myron Futterman in the 1930s. After her divorce from Reagan, she twice married musician and vocal coach Fred Karger, divorcing him the final time in 1965.


When not acting, Wyman painted, mostly landscapes. She also was active for many years in the Arthritis Foundation, for which she served as a national chairwoman. In 1977, she became the second recipient of the Charles B. Harding Award, the highest national award given by the foundation. The group’s Southern California chapter also created the Jane Wyman Humanitarian Award in her honor.

Wyman, a devout Catholic convert and supporter of the Roman Catholic Church, also was a strong supporter of Hollywood’s Covenant House and Our Lady of Angels Monastery.

Survivors include her son and three grandchildren.

A rosary for Wyman, followed by a funeral Mass, will be recited at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 43775 Deep Canyon Road, Palm Desert.


The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Arthritis Foundation of Southern California or to Sacred Heart Catholic Church.