Archive for the Television Category

On the Pivotal Thomas Mitchell: From Classics to “Columbo”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Irish, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

The great Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) came into the world on this day. Mitchell remains well known today as a character actor with parts in an unnaturally long list of Hollywood classic movies — the full weight of them is almost too much to talk about. The best known are Gone With the Wind (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Stagecoach (1939) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). I had already seen these movies when I was a kid, and that’s a good measure of their evergreen reach. There are dozens more besides, which we’ll get to. Yet, we are such a movie-centric culture, seeing Mitchell solely in this light gives a false, incomplete appreciation of his entire career. Movies were just the tip of the iceberg. Prior to Hollywood, he had been an actor, playwright and director for the stage for over twenty years, and continued to appear on Broadway stages and regionally over the rest of his career. During the Hollywood years, he was not just an actor, but an occasional screenwriter. Then, like most of actors of his time, he was constantly on radio throughout the 40s.  And then, over the last decade of his career, he did a huge amount of television.

So Mitchell was prolific. But he was also emblematic of a cultural shift. He was a quintessential man of the theatre and her daughter arts, but unlike many who had gone before, and who may spring to mind, he was not the slightest bit “Anglo”. Back in the day, your typical man or woman of the stage, even in America, was ever self-consciously that. The three Barrymore siblings, though they were one-quarter Irish — think of their manner, and multiply it across the generations. Warren William, Frank Morgan and even Mitchell’s own mentor Charles Coburn (whom we’ll return to) all affected English style. It was dunned into actors at the time.  But Mitchell was the son of Irish immigrants, and there was surely no point in ever pretending otherwise. His face was like the caricaturist’s conception of a leprechaun’s, and he could summon the brogue of his parents for a role at a moment’s notice. And yet interestingly (whether its because or in spite of that, I don’t know) we also think of him as just “American”. Mitchell’s father and older brother were both newspapermen, and Mitchell dabbled in journalism briefly in his youth before choosing the theatre. Think of all the newspaper editors and reporters he plays so authentically. The gruff voice, the unshaven face, the twinkle in his eye, the unlit cigar in his puss. The quality carries over so well into other American archetypes — the country doctor, the provincial politician, the crusty uncle. He represents a sea shift that was probably more noticeable to our forbears. With actors like Mitchell, American culture was coming into its own. Nothing English about that guy.

Young Mitchell, from the Broadway period

Mitchell claimed in a 1939 article that he cut his teeth by touring vaudeville with a once act play he’d written about the poet Thomas Chatterton. As we said, for a time he toured with Charles Coburn’s Shakespearean stock company. By 1916, he is already on Broadway, appearing in the play Under Sentence with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Morgan. Over the next twenty years, he was constantly on the Broadway stage, appearing in or directing some two dozen plays. And his own plays were produced there, including Glory Hallelujah (1926), Little Accident (1928-1929, and later adapted into movies more than once), and Cloudy with Showers (1931). After Stick in the Mud (1936) he made the move to Hollywood, but he returned to Broadway another half dozen times, notably in the original production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1948-49), as a replacement in the original production of The Death of a Salesman (1949-1950) as Willy Loman (how I’d love to have seen that!), and the musical Hazel Flagg (1953), for which won a Tony. His last Broadway appearance was in Cut of the the Ax (1960), which closed after only two performances.

He only appeared in one silent film, Six Cylinder Love (1923). Interestingly one of his fellow players in that film was Donald Meek, with whom he later appeared in Stagecoach. This occasion seems like an experiment, an anomaly. He was very successful on Broadway and probably saw no reason to switch horses to this upstart medium where the audience couldn’t hear you speak, and where you heard no applause.

I first saw Mitchell’s haunting performance as Gerald O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” when I was about an 11 or 12 years old. What an enormous impression it made on me.

But by 1936, many things had changed. Broadway was badly hurt by the Great Depression. And talkies had not only proven their viability they also paid former stage actors big money. His first speaking part was in Craig’s Wife (1936) an adaptation of the George Kelly play, the easiest transition conceivable for him. And then: it was like he had a charmed career, especially at the outset. Highlights included Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), the incredible John Ford disaster movie The Hurricane (1937), and that same director’s beloved Stagecoach (1939), for which Mitchell won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. 1939 was a magical year for him, for in addition to Stagecoach, he also had key roles in Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Only Angels Have Wings. 1940 wasn’t much worse: among his several pictures that year were Swiss Family Robinson, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Ford’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. Other notable pictures: The Black Swan (1942), the notorious Howard Hughes western The Outlaw (1943), The Sullivans (1944), Buffalo Bill (1944), Wilson (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and High Noon (1952). His last film role was in Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Further, his Broadway play Little Accident was made into a movie three separate times, and he co-wrote the screenplays for All of Me (1934), and Casanova Brown (1944).

And just as our tendency to be movie-centric causes us to neglect his early theatre work, it may also cause us to miss his late work in the broadcast media of radio and television. This is interesting to me — folks older than myself no doubt will remember him from this work. Conceivably, one could remember him primarily from this work. It is so voluminous one can scarcely wrap ones arms around it. In the radio days, he made repeated appearances on shows like Suspense, The Cavalcade of America, Lux Radio Theatre, and Anthology. On TV, some of the shows he appeared on (often numerous times) included Lux Video Theatre, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, and at least a dozen others. he also was the star of two different tv series of his own: Mayor of the Town (1954-55), and Glencannon (1959).

Check it out — Mitchell as Columbo, with Cotten as the killer in the stage production of “Prescription: Murder”

And amazingly — and this is quite true — Mitchell’s last role was the part of police detective Lt. Columbo, later made famous on the tv series starring Peter Falk. Created by writer William Link, the character had made on The Chevy Mystery Show, with Bert Freed, in the role in 1960. Its next incarnation was a stage play at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco on January 1962, with Mitchell as Columbo, with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead as his co-stars. Mitchell died of cancer during the play’s tour. But I love this so much — it makes him this wonderful link between the past and future. This Irishman, who started out doing Shakespeare with Charles Coburn takes us all the way to the modern age, playing this Italian police detective, and would end up (metaphorically) handing the baton to Peter Falk, a Jewish guy who would play the part on television into the 21st century.

For more on vaudeville history, including touring thespians like Thomas Mitchell consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Terry-Thomas and His Tragic Final Days

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

The great eccentric British comedian Terry-Thomas (Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, 1911-1990) was born on July 10. It may shock you (or perhaps not) to know that this quintessential caricature of an upper-crust Englishman was a working class kid, the son of a butcher who was into amateur theatricals. As a teenager, Young Tom Stevens began to cultivate his accent, basing his speech on that of an actor named Owen Nares, and began dressing nattily in imitation of his favorite movie stars. He was endowed by nature with the gapped teeth; the cigarette holder, tailored suits, mustache, spats, bowler hat and so forth would all be added later, as would the unique hyphenated professional name. As a young man he held menial jobs (clerkships and so forth), while simultaneously playing ukulele in jazz bands, working as a movie extra and developing a cabaret act. During World War II, he traveled with a unit that entertained the troops, and this increased his confidence and his visibility.

It wasn’t until after the war, at age 36, that his star began to rise. He performed in a sketch revue called Picadilly Hayride that was a smash success in the West End, running close to 800 performances. This led to his becoming the first British comedy tv star in 1949 on a show called How Do You View? He was a star of British comedy film throughout the 1950s (Tom Thumb, 1958, and I’m Alright, Jack, 1959 might be best known to Americans.) In the ’60s his stardom went international. La Grande Vadrouille (1966) was the most successful film in France in terms of box office dollars until 2004, and still ranks third. Americans know him from several popular Hollywood pictures made during the 60s, in which lampooned the stereotypical Brit for our benefit, though not always. He’s in The Wonderful Wold of the Brothers Grimm (1962), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Mouse on the Moon (1963), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Munster Go Home (1966), Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967), The Perils of Pauline (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge Lower the River with Jerry Lewis (1968), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? and How Sweet It Is, both made with Doris Day in 1968, the Dr. Phibes films with Vincent Price (1971 and 1972), and the voice of the snake in Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973).

Unfortunately, in 1971 he learned that he had Parkinson’s Disease, and thus began a slow, painful descent that lasted nearly two decades. Throughout the ’70s he continued to act, although the roles got smaller, fewer, slower and more feeble. Here is in the 1977 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles with starred Peter Cook and Dudley Moore:

His last screen credit was in 1980. Throughout the ’80s he was forced to live off his savings to live and pay for his medical treatments, and withdrew from public life. Towards the end he had sold all of his property and was discovered living with his wife in a charity flat. At that point his condition was publicized, an all-star charity concert was held, and thousands of pounds were raised. Look at the screen shot below. For the final indignity, they left out the hyphen in the lower third caption! Terry-Thomas died a few months after the celebrity concert, in 1990.

On the Amazonian Glory of Tura Satana

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Asian, Burlesk, CAMP, Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

It may seem impossible that such a perfect creature was born on planet earth, but it’s true: Tura Satana (Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi) came into the world on July 10, 1938. She was born in Japan, to a Filipino-Japanese father who’d been a silent movie actor, and a Cherokee-Scots-Irish mother who’d been a circus performer. The family moved to the U.S. only to be interned in a prison camp at the start of World War Two.

Her teenage years were predictably wild. She led an all-girl gang, went to reform school, worked as a stripper and burlesque dancer, and married at age 17, a liaison that only lasted a few months but gave her an excellent new last name: Satana. Satana happens to be a real surname, but the fact that it so closely resembles “Satan”, and goes so well with “Tura” makes the whole thing seem orchestrated by a cosmic puppet-master. She had moved to L.A. during her teenage years; this was the period when she posed for Harold Lloyd’s 3-D photo sessions with Hollywood nudes.

Photo from her early burlesque dancing/ pin-up period.

She became in demand as an exotic dancer for a number of years at nightclubs around the country, and is said to have become romantically involved with Elvis, undoubtedly one of the few men who could handle her.

In 1963, she was cast as the prostitute Suzette Wong in the movies Irma la Douce. Often she was cast as dancers or stippers in cabaret scenes in movies and television. Her turn in Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963) made the movie poster:

She’s in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as a character named Tomo:

In 1965, she got the role of a lifetime, when Russ Meyer cast her as Varla in his great camp exploitation masterwork Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 

Inevitably, I think that Satana WAS Varla, we picture her in full Varla costume whenever we think of her. The film made full use of her martial arts abilities, statuesque yet buxom form, and wisecracking ad libs. She also got to race a cool hot rod in the desert and kick a lot of people’s asses, including, most satisfyingly, those of men.

“How do you like THAT health care plan, Senator?!”

Unfortunately this cult tour de force didn’t lead to big budget Hollywood stardom. She went back to playing a stripper in Our Man Flint (1966). In 1968, she returned to what seemed to work best for her — a bigger part in a smaller movies. In Ted V. Mikels The Astro Zombies (1968), she plays a Dragon Lady character she named after herself and got to share the screen with John Carradine and Wendell Corey, in a movie that was co-written and co-produced by Wayne Rogers!

Mikels hired her again for The Doll Squad (1973), about a quintet of agents set to foil a madman who wants to take over the world. It was the last film of the first phase of her career.

After this, she suffered a number of setbacks. She was actually shot by a former lover. She broke her back in a car accident. She gained weight and took a succession of jobs outside of show business. In the intervening time of course the fame of her early work grew and her movies became cult favorites. In 1985 a glam metal band emerged calling themselves Faster Pussycat. She became in demand at live fan events. Starting around 2002, she began to make appearances in films again, and acted in a few low budget movies (two of them were “sequels” to Astro Zombies). By now, her appeal had altered. An older, heavier woman, but one who simultaneously carried a legend with her, her appeal was more John Waters than Russ Meyer, but she enjoyed the renewed attention. Tura Santana passed away in 2011.

There is a campaign under way to make a documentary about her. Read about it here.

 

 

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Voice Over Actor Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) Got His Start in Vaudeville

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impressionists, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by travsd

Paul Frees (Solomon Hersh Frees, 1920-1986) made his entrance on a June 22. Seldom has there been a voice so well recognized without an equally well-recognized face to go with it. For well over four decades Frees’ voice was a staple of animated cartoons, radio, tv commercials, children’s specials, and film narration and voice-loops. And occasionally, just occasionally you would get the whole actor.

Frees began his career as an impressionist in what was left of local Chicago vaudeville in the the late 1930s as a comedian and impressionist under the name Buddy Green. In 1942 he broke into radio. Much like Orson Welles and William Conrad he was gifted with a voice PERFECT for the medium. Once he was in the door he worked all that he wanted; probably MORE than he wanted. In addition to his radio jobs, he worked for just about all the major animation studios starting in the 1940s. He was unique among voice over artists in that he could be the straightest of straight (serious, square) narrators, but could also do very funny characters. So on the one hand, we associate him with being the voice of dire portent in science fiction films, on the other, he could descend into wackiness.

His best known character is Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I also associate him strongly with all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. He plays several characters in Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (as the Burgermeister Meisterburger), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, among about a dozen others. And lots and lots of Disney. But he’s also highly present in several sci fi classics, most notably War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951). So distinctive is Frees’ voice that it is highly jarring, even alarming when he makes an on-camera appearance, as he does in both films. Even more unsettling is when his voice was used to replace that of another actor whose performance somehow marred the audio-track (e.g., because of a thick accent). In both  Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Midway (1976), a Japanese officer will open his mouth to speak, and Paul Frees’ voice will come out.

By then, producers should have known better, and by the ’70s Frees’ voice as so recognizable that it had essentially become camp. Ernie Fosselius wisely employed his talents in this fashion in the spoof classic Hardware Wars (1978). But camp or not camp, Frees remained in demand until the day he died. He never stopped working. That’s the goal of all performers.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including youthful impressionist like Paul Frees, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. 

 

Space: 1999 (When Past Future Becomes Past Past)

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Martin Landau (b. 1928). Landau is one of those actors who’s worked constantly but sort of at a low profile, with periodic tent pole moments (usually one per decade) where he enjoyed greater limelight: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s been in much more of course, but these are highlights.

Space: 1999 has fallen by the wayside I feel, but at the time when it was made it was culturally crucial. It filled a void, and was transitional in aesthetics. The American science fiction series Star Trek had ceased production in 1969. The original Star Wars film came out in 1977. Space: 1999 lives at the center to connect them and draws from much else besides. It was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, best known today as the creators of The Thunderbirds, and this show proved to be the culmination of their careers. Space: 1999 was the most expensive British series ever produced up until that point. Still, despite that, with its extensive use of miniature sets and flying model rockets, one can’t help seeing it as an exercise in their patented technique of “Supermarionation”, ironically cheesy looking by modern standards.

Converting this into a toy will be an easy matter

On the other hand, the look of the sets clearly draws from the realistic technological speculations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The series is set on a lunar outpost called Moonbase Alpha; scenes in the Kubrick film had been set on a similar base. The environment on the tv show is similar. But the time frame on both 2001 and Space: 1999 in retrospect proves to have been laughably optimistic. The U.S. was in the process of cancelling its lunar exploration program just as the series was getting under way. By the time 1999 rolled around, manned space exploration had consisted of nothing but brief excursions into low earth orbit for a quarter century.

The show is much closer to fantasy than science fiction, anyway. The entire premise, that an explosion causes the moon to leave the earth’s orbit intact and begin sailing around the universe on a series of adventures is so implausible that the word implausible hardly seems sufficient. The fact that the heroes constantly encounter humanoid aliens is equally fantastic. While this also happened on Star Trek and Lost in Space, those shows are set farther in the future and much farther away from earth. In Space: 1999, the heroes leave the earth’s orbit and five minutes later begin encountering weirdness. This aspect of the show, to my mind, aligns it closer to something like Dr. Who, which was still going strong at the time in its original incarnation (with its fourth Doctor, Tom Baker). Like Dr. Who, Space: 1999 seems much more about magic than science. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is more than okay. Just go with it. After all, the characters sure seem to!

Hey! You! Get offa my cloud!

To bolster American ratings, ITC’s Sir Lew Grade insisted on the casting of husband-wife acting team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both fresh off the hot U.S. show Mission: Impossible as the leads Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell. But while a logical move and a laudable instinct, that gesture was hardly sufficient to make Space:1999 a smash hit in the U.S. Among other things, as a syndicated program it would never get prime time slots here nor be vigorously hyped by networks. I seem to recall it airing on Sundays, probably somewhere around 6pm. I was between the ages of ten and 13 when it ran here — of course I watched it faithfully every week. But it distinctly lacked the flash that American network tv shows had. I remember tons of excitement about The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter. But excitement was not a word I would use for how we felt about Space: 1999. It was sort of…quietly in our lives. Part of that was marketing but part was also the show itself. The idea that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would make an American hit show is the kind of amusing, but understandable miscalculation a British producer would make. Silly man! You can’t just hire a “recognizable, competent American acting professional” to carry your series! That’s how they do things in Britain! In America we are looking for gimmicks and phenomena. At that time the American audience was looking for the next Fonzie, the next Baretta…a Farrah Fawcett-Majors, an Incredible Hulk. By contrast, Space:1999 seemed very low-key and subdued. Lots of drab and dull people brooding and worrying all the time. Though undeniably beautiful, Bain in particular was a snooze-o-rama. Landau could occasionally get worked up and interesting. With Bain, it’s almost like you’re looking for some sort of knob on your TV to turn HER up.

Hello! We’re ready for our action figures!

In their second season, the show tried to address this somewhat, replacing the mildly amusing science officer (Barry Morse) with an alien woman (Catherine Schnell) and throwing in more humor and action. But that was both inorganic and insufficient. Expensive to produce, the show was cancelled.

We were delighted to discover the other day that the whole series is available to watch on Hulu, so I looked at some episodes after an interval of four decades. And it was a gas. From the melodramatic, disco-tinged theme music, to the bell-bottomed polyester uniforms, long hair and mustaches (we just don’t see our action heroes sporting those styles any more. It looks like they’re all getting ready to go dancing). Many of the props are hilariously antiquated and were wrong for a space station environment even at the time. Drinking out of a breakable glass? Writing on pieces of paper on clipboards? Clocks with faces and hands? And science fiction set design has gotten so much better, so much more specific since then. What does that unmarked button DO? There are all these vague buttons and flashing lights all over the place and it’s obvious their only function is atmosphere.

But yet again, much of it made me nostalgic. There are video screens and electronic monitors of one sort or another all over the place on the show, yet they are SEVENTIES screens and monitors and signals. They were the height of modernity at the time; now they look like my youth, when video tech was in its infancy. In its way it’s like looking at an old radio cabinet:

Landau was very dissatisfied with Space: 1999, particularly its second season, and was only too glad to be done with it. But, really, since the next phase of his career was characterized by stuff like Meteor (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), perhaps he began to find himself a little homesick for Moonbase Alpha.

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

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