From the Archives: Jane Wyatt, 96; ‘Father Knows Best’ mom
Jane Wyatt, a three-time Emmy Award-winner for her portrayal of the patient, understanding housewife and mother on the classic 1950s family situation comedy “Father Knows Best,” has died. She was 96.
Wyatt, whose acting career spanned stage, screen and television over seven decades, died Friday in her sleep at her Bel-Air home, grandson Nicholas Ward said.
A Broadway veteran who made her screen debut in 1934, Wyatt appeared in more than 30 movies in leading and supporting roles, including “None But the Lonely Heart” with Cary Grant, “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Gregory Peck, “Canadian Pacific” with Randolph Scott, “Task Force” with Gary Cooper, “Boomerang” with Dana Andrews and “Pitfall” with Dick Powell.
Her most memorable screen role was the ethereal young Shangri-la beauty who enchants Ronald Colman in “Lost Horizon,” Frank Capra’s 1937 film version of the James Hilton novel.
But Wyatt, who regularly left Hollywood to return to Broadway in the 1930s and ‘40s, never attained the kind of stardom on the big screen that she achieved on television opposite Robert Young on “Father Knows Best.”
As the warm and charming Jim and Margaret Anderson, Young and Wyatt presided over their idealistically wholesome family at 607 South Maple Street in the typical Midwestern community of Springfield.
The series, which ran from 1954 to 1960 and in prime-time reruns for three more years, featured Elinor Donahue as eldest child Betty, or “Princess”; Billy Gray as Bud; and Lauren Chapin as Kathy, or “Kitten.”
“Father Knows Best” began on radio in 1949 starring Young and June Whitley. But Young and Eugene Rodney, Young’s partner in ownership and production of the series, wanted Wyatt to play his wife on television.
When she was originally offered the role, however, Wyatt turned it down.
“I’d been doing a lot of live TV drama in which I was the star,” she said in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star. “I didn’t want to be just a mother.”
But months later, Wyatt’s investment-broker husband, Edgar Ward, whom she married in 1937, told her she should give the script another read. She did, and, she recalled, “It changed my life.”
When the show debuted in 1954, a reviewer for the New York Times praised Young and Wyatt for restoring “parental prestige on TV.” The same year, the series won a Sylvania Award for excellence.
“Our shows were written to be entertaining, but the writers had something to say,” she told the Associated Press in 1989. Every script, Wyatt said, “always solved a little problem that was universal. It appealed to everyone. I think the world is hankering for a family. People may want to be free, but they still want a nuclear family.”
Wyatt was proud of the series, which has been criticized for not being a realistic portrayal of American family life.
“We thought it was,” she told The Times in 1986, speaking for herself and Young. “We, each of us, has been married for 50 years. It is what we wanted to do for our children. We can’t have it exactly like life; it would be too boring. We all thought it was life — as we wanted it to be.”
Wyatt also disagreed with latter-day critics who complain that Margaret Anderson was always subordinate to her husband. “She was the power behind the throne,” she said. “She helped her husband out. Mother always knew best, too.”
During the show’s heyday, Wyatt said, many viewers thought she and Young were really married.
“In fact, once I even thought I was Mrs. Jim Anderson,” she said in a 1960 interview. “We were doing some personal appearances in Seattle, and when I checked into the hotel the clerk said, ‘Why, you’re Mrs. Jim Anderson.’ I smiled, looked down at the register and before I knew, it, I had written ‘Mrs. Jim Anderson.’ ”
During those years, she recalled in a later interview, she spent more time with Young than she did with her real husband.
“I remember once going over to the Youngs’ house for a dinner party,” she said, “and when I walked in, I fixed Bob’s tie without even thinking about it.”
Wyatt was also often asked if the children on the show were really hers.
She said she became close to Donahue, Gray and Chapin, “but you can never take the place of a real mother. I finally figured out that our relationship was more like a favorite aunt with her favorite nieces and nephews.”
Wyatt, a mother of two sons, said she used to find herself correcting her TV offspring “just as I would my own children. But I guess the main difference was that I didn’t feel the terrible responsibility that a real mother feels for her children.”
Wyatt won her Emmys for the series in 1958, ’59 and ’60, the same year she received a citation from the California Assembly for “consistency in outstanding performance as Margaret Anderson in ‘Father Knows Best.’ ”
Young, who died in 1998 at age 91, decided to end the top 10-rated show in 1960 because he felt it had used up all the potential story lines and the characters played by Donahue and Gray had grown up.
The cast was reunited for two TV movies in the late 1970s: “The Father Knows Best Reunion” and “Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas.”
“They were fun to do, but enough is enough,” Wyatt said in 1990. “People like the original show precisely because it’s of another era. Why bore them by growing old?”
Wyatt was born Aug. 12, 1910, in Campgaw, N.J. Her father, Christopher Wyatt, was a New York investment banker, and her mother, Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt, was a playwright, drama critic and editor.
Wyatt majored in history and took drama courses at Barnard College, but she left after two years to become an apprentice at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Mass.
She made her first appearance on the New York stage in “Give Me Yesterday” in 1931 and in 1933 succeeded Margaret Sullavan in “Dinner at Eight” on Broadway.
Signed to a short-term contract by Universal in 1934, she made her screen debut that year playing the heroine’s supportive sister in James Whale’s “One More River.” Her first female on-screen lead was in “Great Expectations” in 1934.
Throughout the late ‘30s and ‘40s, she alternated between stage and screen, including starring on Broadway in 1945 opposite Franchot Tone in “Hope for the Best.”
Wyatt had a brush with the Hollywood blacklist for several years in the early 1950s, when her film work dried up.
Wyatt, who had joined Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and other Hollywood stars on a flight to Washington in 1947 to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, told the Chicago Tribune in 1989 that she would get a job offer on a film, “then all of a sudden it would be rescinded.”
“I was never a member of the Communist Party, but they brought up all sorts of charges that I had been to the Lab Theater, which was considered subversive,” she said. “All we did there were the classics, ‘Volpone,’ ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ I still don’t know how they managed to find a Marxist subtext in [Georges] Feydeau” — a turn-of-the-century French playwright known for his sex farces.
Wyatt also was labeled as having been “prematurely anti-fascist” because she opposed Hitler before the United States entered the war.
“I attended a concert by the L.A. Philharmonic calling for a second front against the Nazis,” she said. “I don’t know why that was held against me, because [Franklin] Roosevelt was calling for a second front at the same time.”
After “Father Knows Best” ended, Wyatt continued acting, including an appearance as Spock’s mother on TV’s “Star Trek,” a role she reprised in the 1986 film: “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” She also was moderator-host of an ABC daytime series, “Confidential for Women,” in 1967.
Over the next three decades, she continued to appear in regional theater and make TV guest shots, including a recurring role as Norman Lloyd’s (Dr. Auschlander’s) wife on “St. Elsewhere.”
Wyatt was heavily involved in charity work, especially the March of Dimes, for which she had worked since its founding in 1938. She also was involved with Los Angeles Beautiful, a civic beautification program, for many years.
Decades after leaving “Father Knows Best” behind, Wyatt was often recognized in public as the iconic Margaret Anderson. But in a 1990 interview, she acknowledged that she wasn’t much like her famously domesticated TV character.
“I never vacuumed at home wearing my pearls,” she said. “In fact, I never vacuumed at all; I was always working at the studio.
“I would have gone crazy staying at home like Margaret Anderson, and my family knew that.”
Wyatt is survived by sons Christopher Ward of Piedmont, Calif., and Michael Ward of Los Angeles; two grandsons; a granddaughter; and seven great-grandchildren.
Services will be private, and instead of flowers the family asks that donations in Wyatt’s name be made to the March of Dimes.
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