Jane Wyatt, 96; Film Actress Also in 'Father Knows Best'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

Jane Wyatt, 96, a onetime socialite who specialized in playing well-bred ingenues on stage and film and is best known as the understanding mother in the television sitcom "Father Knows Best," died Oct. 20 at her home in Bel Air, Calif. The family said she died in her sleep but did not give further details.

Ms. Wyatt was dropped from the New York Social Register after becoming an actress, but she later reacquired her standing through marriage. Meanwhile, she enjoyed an active career on the Broadway stage and then in Hollywood.

She appeared in about 30 films, including Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937), based on James Hilton's novel about a Himalayan nirvana called Shangri-La, and "None But the Lonely Heart" (1944), in which she was a gentle musician who cared for Cary Grant's cockney ne'er-do-well.

Her name is probably familiar to a generation of television watchers because of "Father Knows Best," which aired from 1954 to 1960, in reruns for three more years and in endless syndication after that.

Ms. Wyatt won three Emmy Awards playing Margaret Anderson, the wife of a Midwestern insurance agent, played by Robert Young and the mother of their three children, portrayed by Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin.

After its cancellation, she took a variety of television parts, appearing on "Alfred Hitchock Presents," "The Virginian" and "Fantasy Island," among others. On a "Star Trek" episode, she was Spock's mother.

She also accepted a part in "Amityville: The Evil Escapes" (1989), a TV movie that was a chapter in the "Amityville Horror" scare flicks. Unfamiliar with the series, she initially thought the script was about Andersonville, the Civil War prisoner-of-war camp.

However, she said she embraced the role of an embittered crone of a woman who must take in her daughter, played by Patty Duke, and three grandchildren, one of whom is taken over by an evil spirit.

Her character, Alice, "is VERY different," Ms. Wyatt told the Chicago Tribune. "Margaret Anderson would have welcomed her daughter and grandchildren [and had them] stay for a year, two years.

"Alice, on the other hand, didn't exactly roll out the welcome wagon. She had been living alone for a long time. Then suddenly four people move in. You get fussy and a little used to your own ways. Plus the kid's possessed."

Jane Waddington Wyatt was born Aug. 12, 1910, in Campgaw, N.J. Her ancestry was traced to early American statesmen and educators. Her father was an investment banker, and her mother, from the Van Rensselaer family line, wrote drama criticism.

Ms. Wyatt was raised in New York and attended the private Miss Chapin's School and Barnard College and maintained an active social life with Rockefellers and Roosevelts.

After a period in stock, she arrived on Broadway in 1931 at the bottom of the cast in A.A. Milne's "Give Me Yesterday" (1931). She went on to appear in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's "Dinner at Eight" as the ingenue Paula, who has an affair with an older, alcoholic matinee idol.

She appeared in several other short-lived production and toured in "Dinner at Eight," which had been made into an all-star film in 1933 with Madge Evans as the lovelorn Paula.

Soon after, Ms. Wyatt made her screen debut as a secondary character in James Whale's "One More River" (1934), followed by Estella in a version of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" with Phillips Holmes as Pip.

The next several films ("We're Only Human," "The Luckiest Girl in the World") showcased Ms. Wyatt's adaptability in both crime drama and comedy. She was loaned from her home studio, Universal, to Columbia for "Lost Horizon," which placed her for the first time against a top male star, Ronald Colman.

As a beguiling schoolteacher named Sondra, she got middling reviews. Critic Frank S. Nugent wrote in the New York Times that Ms. Wyatt was an "extremely attractive Miss [but] never for a second convinced me that she could have been raised in a lamasery."

She spent the next several years alternating in undistinguished Broadway fare and films of almost every stripe, including Westerns ("Hurricane Smith"), comedies ("Kisses for Breakfast") and wartime propaganda ("The Navy Comes Through").

In 1944, she was a standout in "None but the Lonely Heart," a film directed by the playwright Clifford Odets that also featured Ethel Barrymore as Cary Grant's ailing mother. This was to be her last great screen part, but in 1947, she had secondary roles in two superior films directed by Elia Kazan: the drama "Boomerang!" with Dana Andrews and "Gentleman's Agreement" with Gregory Peck as a journalist who crusades against social anti-Semitism.

Ms. Wyatt spent the next several years alternating between Broadway and Hollywood and winning fashion awards as a best-dressed woman.

She later said her work dried up in the early 1950s because of her association with a group of politically liberal actors campaigning against the anti-Communist blacklist, including Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. She said that she was never a Communist and that the worst label that anyone applied to her was "prematurely anti-fascist."

The offer to appear in "Father Knows Best," long a fixture on radio, came as a surprise. The show ran first on CBS, and that network's decision to cancel the program resulted in loud protests. NBC picked it up from 1955 to 1958 before the show returned to CBS.

Although Ms. Wyatt said in later years that she found aspects of the show dated, she took some comfort in its ability to appeal to audiences around the world.

"When we did it we had no idea it would make such a big splash," she told the Associated Press in 1989. "I went to Peru on a botanical trip last year. The stewardesses on the plane were all over us. In Lima, we were besieged by people. The show's called 'Papa Lo Sabe Todo' there."

In addition to acting, Ms. Wyatt spent much of her life raising funds for the March of Dimes. She also enjoyed gardening and birding and socializing with actress Betty White.

Ms. Wyatt married Edgar B. Ward, an investment broker, in 1935. The marriage got her back on the social register. Her husband died in 2000. A son died in infancy in the early 1940s.

Survivors include two sons, Christopher Ward of Piedmont, Calif., and Michael Ward of Los Angeles; three grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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