Jane Wyman, actress, ex-wife of Reagan, dies

September 11, 2007|By Claudia Luther | Claudia Luther,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Jane Wyman, the Academy Award-winning actress whose long and distinguished film and television career was nearly overshadowed by her real-life role as the first wife of actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, died yesterday morning. She was at least 90.

Ms. Wyman died at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said Virginia Zamboni, a longtime friend.

After arriving in Hollywood from St. Louis in the mid-1930s, Ms. Wyman learned her craft as a contract player before getting a crack at the major roles that would secure her reputation as a star. She won an Oscar playing a deaf-mute rape victim in 1948's Johnny Belinda and was nominated for her performances in The Yearling (1946), The Blue Veil (1951) and Magnificent Obsession (1954).

In the 1950s, the early days of television, she staked out a career in that medium with her own half-hour dramatic anthology show. And years after her film career waned, she became familiar to millions more television viewers as the matriarch-you-love-to-hate in the long-running 1980s nighttime soap opera Falcon Crest.

Still, hardly ever was Ms. Wyman's name mentioned in print without also referring to the second of her three husbands.

At the time they met in 1938, Mr. Reagan was a fellow actor under contract with Warner Bros. After a well-publicized courtship, they wed on Jan. 26, 1940.

Ms. Wyman bore the couple two daughters, one of whom died after a premature birth and the other, Maureen Reagan, who died of melanoma in 2001 at age 60. They also adopted a son, Michael, before divorcing in 1948.

Theirs would have been just another Hollywood marriage that landed on the rocks had Mr. Reagan not gone on to be governor of California and the 40th president of the United States.

Mr. Reagan, who was by then married to the former Nancy Davis and had two more children, was the first American president to ever have been divorced. That bestowed on Ms. Wyman the dubious honor of being the first ex-wife of an American president.

Much to Ms. Wyman's irritation, she was the subject of constant questioning about Mr. Reagan, despite her well-known refusal to speak of him because she considered it "bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives." She was known to leave an interview if a writer brought up his name.

"I made 86 films and 350 television shows," she explained to Newsday in 1989. "I've been in this business 54 years."

Rarely did she break her silence about her former husband, with the exception of a brief statement issued after his death on June 5, 2004: "America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man."

With her brown eyes, turned-up nose and signature dark hairdo -- a pageboy with bangs -- Ms. Wyman was a familiar face to millions of fans and a prominent member of Old Hollywood. Her co-stars ranged from Gregory Peck in The Yearling to the young Rock Hudson, whose first starring role was opposite Ms. Wyman in Magnificent Obsession. She also starred with Mr. Hudson in All That Heaven Allows, which was the inspiration for writer-director Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven in 2002.

Sarah Jane Mayfield Fulks was born in St. Joseph, Mo. Although many biographical sources list 1914 as her year of birth, Ms. Zamboni said Ms. Wyman was born on Jan. 5, 1917, and had changed her birth date when she went into the movie business because she was underage.

Her father died when she was young, and she was raised by her mother, who had ambitions for her daughter to be in Hollywood. Ms. Wyman attended the University of Missouri and for a time was a radio singer under the name of Jane Durrell.

Ms. Wyman got her start in films in the chorus of a 1932 Busby Berkeley movie beside other then-unknowns such as Betty Grable and Paulette Goddard. After a string of films in which she was "third from the right in the front row of the chorus," she graduated to B movies playing, as Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper once said, "brassy dames whose most incisive piece of repartee was, `Oh, yeah?'" She changed her name to Wyman when she went under contract at Warner Bros. in 1936.

Like many actresses of the day, the light-haired Ms. Wyman at first bleached her hair Jean Harlow blond but eventually dyed it dark brown in order to be taken more seriously. She finally got noticed by Billy Wilder, who cast her opposite Ray Milland in the melodrama The Lost Weekend (1945), about a would-be writer on a boozy weekend in New York City. At last she had gotten the kind of role she had always wanted, and she didn't waste her opportunity. The film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1946.

Her next major role was as Orry Baxter, the stern mother in The Yearling, which earned her an Oscar nomination and completed her transformation into serious actress and leading lady.

"Mother's career consisted mostly of one depressingly serious part after another," Maureen Reagan wryly wrote in her 1989 memoir, First Father, First Daughter.

Survivors include her son, Michael Reagan, and three grandchildren.

Claudia Luther writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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