PASSINGS: Phyllis Thaxter, Ron Nelson

Phyllis Thaxter

Veteran actress played Clark Kent’s mother

Phyllis Thaxter, 92, an actress who had an active film career in the 1940s and ‘50s and capped it with her portrayal of Clark Kent’s mother in the 1978 version of “Superman,” died Tuesday at her home in Orlando, Fla., said her daughter, actress Skye Aubrey. She hadAlzheimer’s disease.

After watching her screen test, MGM executives chose Thaxter, a stage actress, to play opposite Van Johnson in the World War II drama “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944).


A string of roles as the wife or romantic partner followed, as Thaxter appeared with Burt Lancaster in “Jim Thorpe — All American” (1951), James Cagney and Gig Young in “Come Fill the Cup” (1951), Ronald Reagan in “She’s Working Her Way Through College” (1952) and Gary Cooper in “Springfield Rifle” (1952).

Thaxter also received good notices for her film work in the 1945 thriller"Bewitched"and the 1950 film noir “The Breaking Point” with John Garfield.

She was born Nov. 20, 1919, in Portland, Maine, to a state Supreme Court justice and his wife, a classically trained actress. Thaxter studied acting at the Montreal Repertory Theatre before landing theatrical roles in New York that included playing Lempi in the 1940 Broadway production of “There Shall Be No Night.”

Thaxter also had numerous television parts in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Lux Video Theatre” and other anthology series as well as prime-time episodic programs.


In recent years she acted in regional theater.

Thaxter’s first marriage to James T. Aubrey Jr., who became president of CBS and head of MGM, ended in divorce. They had a son, James, and daughter Skye. She later married businessman Gilbert Lea, who died in 2008.

Ron Nelson

Officer responded to James Dean crash


Ron Nelson, 94, one of two California Highway Patrol officers to investigate the scene of actor James Dean’s fatal 1955 crash in San Luis Obispo County, died Aug. 7, a week after having a stroke, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported. He was a resident of Atascadero.

The actor’s death transformed the young Hollywood star into a screen legend and provided a measure of celebrity for Nelson and fellow officer Ernie Tripke, who died in 2010. The men were frequently asked to share what they had witnessed Sept. 30, 1955, after responding to the collision of Dean’s Porsche and a sedan at the rural junction of two highways.

When Nelson arrived, he saw Dean being loaded into an ambulance and breathing heavily, which he thought signaled severe brain injury, Nelson told The Times in 2005. He pointed out that the collision with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Donald Turnupseed was Turnupseed’s fault. The other driver simply hadn’t seen Dean’s gray sports car coming at him, Nelson often said.

Although it was widely reported that Dean’s car had been going 90 mph, that wasn’t the case, Nelson had concluded. The wreckage and position of Dean’s body indicated his car had been traveling about 55 mph, Nelson said in The Times interview.


“Strange thing is, I had never heard of James Dean the actor before the accident,” Nelson had told The Times. “I thought maybe this was James Dean, the country singer.”

Nelson was born April 25, 1918, on a North Dakota farm and joined the Navy in 1938. He was assigned to the repair vessel Vestal in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. When the Japanese attacked, Nelson was playing tennis on the base; his ship sustained heavy damage.

-- Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports