LOS ANGELES — Jane Wyman, an Academy Award winner for her performance as the deaf rape victim in “Johnny Belinda,” star of the long-running TV series “Falcon Crest” and Ronald Reagan’s first wife, died Monday.
“I have lost a loving mother, my children Cameron and Ashley have lost a loving grandmother, my wife Colleen has lost a loving friend she called Mom and Hollywood has lost the classiest lady to ever grace the silver screen,” son Michael Reagan said in a statement.
Wyman died early Monday at her Palm Springs home, said Richard Adney of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Cathedral City. Wyman’s age was listed as 93 in several reference books; however, other sources, including the official family Web site www.jane-wyman.com, say she was 90.
Wyman’s film career spanned from the 1930s, including “Gold Diggers of 1937,” to 1969’s “How to Commit Marriage,” co-starring Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason. From 1981 to 1990 she played Angela Channing, a Napa Valley winery owner who maintained her power with a steely will on CBS’ “Falcon Crest.”
Her marriage in 1940 to fellow Warner Bros. contract player Reagan was celebrated in the fan magazines as one of Hollywood’s ideal unions. While he was in uniform during World War II, her career ascended, signaled by her 1946 Oscar nomination for “The Yearling.”
After Reagan became governor of California and then president of the United States, Wyman kept a decorous silence about her ex-husband, who had married actress Nancy Davis. In a 1968 newspaper interview, Wyman explained the reason: “It’s not because I’m bitter or because I don’t agree with him politically. I’ve always been a registered Republican. But it’s bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives, that’s all. Also, I don’t know a damn thing about politics.”
A few days after Reagan died on June 5, 2004, Wyman broke her silence, saying: “America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man.”
First line as chorus girl
It was 1936 when Warner Bros. signed Wyman to a long-term contract. She long remembered the first line she spoke as a chorus girl to show producer Dick Powell: “I’m Bessie Fuffnik. I swim, ride, dive, imitate wild birds and play the trombone.”
Warner Bros. was notorious for typecasting its contract players, and Wyman suffered that fate. She recalled in 1968: “For 10 years I was the wisecracking lady reporter who stormed the city desk snapping, ‘Stop the presses! I’ve got a story that will break this town wide open!”’
In 1937, Wyman married a wealthy manufacturer of children’s clothes, Myron Futterman, in New Orleans. The marriage was reported as her second, but an earlier marriage was never confirmed. She divorced him in November 1938, declaring she wanted children and he didn’t.
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The actress became entranced by Reagan, a handsome former sportscaster who was a newcomer to the Warner lot. She wangled a date with him, and romance ensued.
After returning from a personal appearance tour with columnist Louella Parsons, they were married on Jan. 26, 1940. The following year she gave birth to a daughter, Maureen. They later adopted a son, Michael. They also had a daughter who was born several months premature in June 1947 and died a day later.
In Reagan’s autobiography “An American Life,” the index shows only one mention of Wyman, and it runs for only two sentences. “That same year I made the Knute Rockne movie, I married Jane Wyman, another contract player at Warners,” Reagan wrote. “Our marriage produced two wonderful children, Maureen and Michael, but it didn’t work out, and in 1948 we were divorced.” The final divorce decree was issued in 1949.
Their daughter Maureen died in August 2001 after a battle with cancer. At the funeral, Wyman, balancing on a cane, put a cross on the casket. Reagan, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was not well enough to attend.
Early in their marriage, Reagan’s career grew with “Knute Rockne — All American” and “King’s Row” while Wyman languished as the “Joan Blondell of the B’s.” That changed after Reagan joined the army.
First Oscar nomination
Wyman escaped B-pictures by persuading Jack Warner to loan her to Paramount for “The Lost Weekend.” The film won the Academy Award for 1945 and led to another loanout — to MGM for “The Yearling.” De-glamourized as a backwoods wife and mother, the actress received her first Oscar nomination.
After 40 films at Warner Bros., Wyman achieved her first acting challenge with “Johnny Belinda.” When Jack Warner saw a rough cut of the film, he ranted to the director, Jean Negulesco: “We invented talking pictures, and you make a picture about a deaf and dumb girl!”
He changed his attitude when “Johnny Belinda” received 12 Academy Award nominations and the best-actress Oscar for Wyman.
Her acceptance speech was brief: “I accept this award very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut once. I think I’ll do it again.”
Reagan became increasingly active in politics as his wife’s career climbed. When she divorced him, she testified: “Politics built a barrier between us. I tried to make his interests mine, but finally there was nothing to sustain our marriage.”
Wyman continued making prestigious films such as “The Glass Menagerie,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright,” “Here Comes the Groom” (with Bing Crosby). Two tearjerkers, “The Blue Veil” (1951) and “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), brought her Oscar nominations as best actress.
Other film credits include: “So Big,” “Lucy Gallant,” “All That Heaven Allows,” “Miracle in the Rain,” “Holiday for Lovers,” “Pollyanna” and “Bon Voyage!”
Her first entry into television came with “The Jane Wyman Show,” an anthology series that appeared on NBC from 1955 to 1958. She introduced the shows, half of them starring herself, half with other actors. She quit the show after three years, saying that “putting on a miniature movie once a week” was exhausting.
When Wyman received the script for “Falcon Crest,” she was undecided about undertaking the nasty, power-mad Angela Channing, so different from the self-sacrificing characters of her movie days.
But she liked the idea that Angela “runs everything. She goes straight through everything like a Mack truck.”
Riding the wave of prime-time soap operas that made “Dallas” and “Dynasty” national sensations, “Falcon Crest” lasted nine seasons. The series ended with Angela again in control of the vineyard. Her battered family raised their glasses in a toast: “The land endures.”
Withdrew from public view
After Reagan became president in 1981, his former wife gave few interviews and responded to questions about him with a stony look. When “Falcon Crest” ended, she withdrew from public view. She saw a few intimates and devoted much time to painting.
“She was a wonderful woman and great to work with,” said actress Jane Seymour, who starred in TV’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” on which Wyman guest-starred in a 1993 episode as Seymour’s mother. “She was an amazing pro.”
She summed up her long career in a 1981 newspaper interview: “I’ve been through four different cycles in pictures: the brassy blonde, then came the musicals, the high dramas, then the inauguration of television.”
In the end, she had survived for decades in a town notorious for exploiting talent and then discarding it.
Sarah Jane Fulks was born in St. Joseph, Mo. She grew up in a cheerless home in which her mother’s time was devoted to her seriously ailing husband. After the father died, Sarah Jane accompanied her mother to Los Angeles, where the girl tried to get jobs in the studios. There was no work for the snub-nosed teenager, and she returned to St. Joseph.
She attended the University of Missouri, worked as a manicurist and switchboard operator, then sang on radio as Jane Durrell. When that career dwindled, she decided to try Hollywood again, began playing bit parts, and changed Durrell to Wyman.
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