David Wayne: Bantamweight from Broadway

I first became aware of David Wayne (Wayne James McMeekan, 1914-95) from his role as Jim Hutton’s dad on the very fun mystery series Ellery Queen (1975-76). Over the years I caught him in dozens of other performances, old and new, and always liked him and the particular little niche he seemed to occupy. He was always distinctive enough to be memorable. A diminutive but wiry guy, his parts often seemed to be pipsqueaks of a certain type: not the kind who get bullied, but the type whose nose is often out of joint but whose complaints are ineffectual. He was droll and arch, but also often perturbed. So he was great in comedy ensembles, often in second lead role as “the friend”, not unlike the kind of parts Tony Randall played early in his career. The fact that Wayne had enjoyed massive success onstage must have made his subsequent screen career somewhat frustrating for him however. His chops (including a terrific voice) were such that he was good enough to be at the center of things, but circumstances rarely permitted that.

Originally from Michigan, Wayne began his professional acting career at a regional stock theatre in Cleveland, performing Shakespeare, in the mid 1930s. For a time he also performed puppetry with the Tatterman Marionettes. By 1938 he was on Broadway, and a year after that landed a good part in Kaufman and Hart’s The American Way. This unique pageant must have filled the young man with patriotic notions, for when World War Two came to Europe, Wayne volunteered as an ambulance driver before America had even joined the war. When we did, he joined the U.S. army and fought in North Africa.

After the war, Wayne returned to Broadway where he had unbelievable hot streak for a few years, creating three key roles in the original productions of shows that have become classics. He was Og the Leprochaun in Finian’s Rainbow (1947-48, for which he won a Tony), Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts (1948-51), and Sakini in Teahouse of the August Moon (1953-56, his second Tony). Sadly, he was not cast in the Hollywood film versions of any of these productions.

Yet Wayne did work, and work a lot, in Hollywood. Early successes included Portrait of Jenny (1948) with Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, and Ethel Barrymore; and Adam’s Rib (1949) with Tracy and Hepburn. He had the lead in the 1951 remake of M!, a somewhat risky (maybe even ill-advised) move given that the roles was a child molester and so closely identified with Peter Lorre. But that was an anomaly. Throughout the ’50s he was mostly in musicals and light comedies for which his Broadway chops well suited him. He played the lead role of producer Sol Hurok in the musical bio-pic Tonight We Sing (1953), and also had key roles in the similar pictures My Blue Heaven (1950), As Young As You Feel (1951), With a Song In My Heart (1952), Wait Til the Sun Shines Nellie (1952), We’re Not Married (1952), O.Henry’s Full House (1952), The I Don’t Care Girl (1953), Down Among the Sheltering Palms (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Tender Trap (1955), and Jerry Lewis’s The Sad Sack (1957). This is all pretty frothy stuff, and long about now Wayne must have been hankering to do some drama. After all, he had a Tony for Teahouse on his resume — he later starred in a TV version in 1962. He was also in such things as The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and The Last Angry Man (1959). In 1959 he guest starred memorable on The Twlight Zone in the episode “The Escape Clause”.

Over the years Wayne returned periodically to the stage. The most notable occasion was in the original productions of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall and Incident at Vichy (1964-65). In 1966, he did his obligratory turn as a Batman villain, although his character The Mad Hatter seemed a little too close to Burgess Meredith’s Penguin in conception. In 1971 he was in the sci-fi thriller The Andomeda Strain (1971), and the short-lived sitcom The Good Life with Larry Hagman, Donna Mills and Danny Goldman. Then came a 1974 production of Huckleberry Finn, Billy Wilder’s version of The Front Page (1974), the tv version of It’s a Bird It’s a Plane It’s Superman (1975) and The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975). The latter may explain why he plays a character not unlike Burgess Meredith’s Mick from Rocky in Tim Conway’s 1979 The Prize Fighter. That same year he was in An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler, and launched his three year stint as Dr. Amos Weatherby, Wayne Rogers‘ foil on the tv sitcom version of House Calls. In 1984 and 1985 he had a recurring character (also as a doctor) on St. Elsewhere. Late stuff included appearances on The Love Boat, The Golden Girls, Murder She Wrote, and other shows.

David Wayne’s last screen credits were in 1987. But I never saw him in anything without thinking of this:

Care to support the voluminous and variegated work of Travalanche? Please do so by joining our Patreon Posse here. As little as $1 a month gets you all sorts of extra content over and above what we do here, including our Daily Digest; lots of old time movie, radio, TV and record clips; and exclusive audio and video presentations by Your Humble Servant. Hither to the 411.