In 1952, Jayne Meadows was a broke, newly divorced film actress when she got a job she didn’t really want. It ended up making her a household name.
On the game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” Meadows joined a panel of four celebrities who were supposed to guess a funny or embarrassing hidden fact about guests. Throughout the 1950s it was one of the highest-rated shows in the fast-growing medium of television.
“The thing that made me a name in television was not acting — it was that show,” Meadows recalled later.
Her work on “I’ve Got a Secret” also introduced her to the man who became her second husband, Steve Allen, who was the first host of NBC’s “Tonight Show.” Until his death in 2000, they were one of the most recognizable performing couples in Hollywood.
Meadows died of natural causes Sunday night at her home in Encino, according to her son Bill Allen. She was 95.
Long after ending her run on “I’ve Got a Secret,” Meadows kept hunting for film and TV roles, occasionally landing some that earned her attention. Younger filmgoers may recall her as Billy Crystal’s mother in “City Slickers.” She also had a regular role as a nurse on the 1970s drama “Medical Center” and appeared on another classic game show, “What’s My Line?”
Meadows was nominated three times for prime-time Emmy Awards for her series work, including once on her husband’s PBS series, “Meeting of Minds,” in which she played historical figures such as Cleopatra and Florence Nightingale.
But her longest-running role was as part of a celebrity couple representing the virtues of comfortable domestic life amid the chaotic swirl of show business. Meadows assumed the part of the chatty, fashionable partner to Allen’s tireless Renaissance man.
During a 1981 joint interview, a reporter asked whether Meadows had felt a recent minor earthquake in Los Angeles. She replied that her husband had but that she had not.
“She was talking at the time,” Allen deadpanned.
Jayne Meadows Cotter was born Sept. 27, 1919, to parents serving as Episcopal missionaries in Wuchang, China. (She often misstated her age by three to 10 years, but, according to her son, was so pleased at reaching 90 a few years ago that she produced a birth certificate that corrected the record.)
Young Jayne was not a fan of her birth country, at least at first.
“I remember mostly fearful things,” she recalled of China in a 1979 interview. “The noise. Riding in a rickshaw with my older brothers to school and having hats stolen right off my head in the street.”
But after Communist leaders began opening up China in the 1970s, she revisited the country with Allen and film groups, and gave talks to young Chinese actors who were curious about America.
By the 1930s, the family was back in the U.S. and Meadows was set on a career as a performer. Her younger sister, Audrey Meadows, would eventually rise to fame as Ralph Kramden’s long-suffering wife on Jackie Gleason’s seminal 1950s TV comedy “The Honeymooners.”
Jayne Meadows made her Broadway debut in the comedy “Spring Again” in 1941. After World War II, she moved to Hollywood and earned some positive notices opposite Katharine Hepburn in the 1946 film noir “Undercurrent,” directed by Vincente Minnelli. She followed up the next year with another acclaimed supporting role, this time in the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “Lady in the Lake.”
But her film career fizzled, as did a first marriage to screenwriter Milton Krims.
On “I’ve Got a Secret,” Meadows finally found her metier as part of a group of bright lights who could help turn a formulaic game show into a party that viewers were eager to attend.
Later in life, she was irked by the frustrations of trying to make a living as an actor. “The roles for women are very limited,” she said in 1977.
But she found a refuge in her family. In addition to her son Bill, she is survived by three grandchildren.
“She’s an old-fashioned woman,” Allen once said of his wife. “Old-fashioned in terms of her attitudes, her manner, her demeanor, her voice. She has a dignity that is rare these days. But she also has a lightness, an airiness, a girlishness and a certain degree of social innocence.”