Sunday, June 13, 2010


Centennial Tributes: Mary Wickes

By Edward Copeland
Where would entertainment be without the character actor or, in this case, actress? Mary Wickes, who was born 100 years ago today, spent nearly 60 years supporting the stars on the stage, big and small screens, usually with a crusty exterior and almost always leaving the audience laughing. Her Broadway debut came in 1936 in a play called Spring Dance written by Philip Barry of The Philadelphia Story fame and starring José Ferrer and her film debut came two years later in a comedy short titled Too Much Johnson that starred Joseph Cotten and was directed by none other than Orson Welles. Her name may never have reached household status, but at 5 feet 10 inches tall with a usual wisecracking demeanor, once someone showed you a photo or clip of her, you knew who Mary Wickes was.

Wickes was born Mary Isabelle Wickenhauser on June 13, 1910, in St. Louis, Mo., the daughter of well-off banker. While the vast majority of her roles came from the working class, Wickenhauser was a debutante who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in political science with plans to pursue a law degree until the acting bug bit.

Her career began on the stage (to which she returned frequently) and she became part of Welles' Mercury players. She appeared in the original Broadway production of Stage Door. She originated the role of Miss Preen in the Kaufman/Hart hit The Man Who Came to Dinner opposite Monty Woolley. When Hollywood decided to adapt the play to film, they kept Wickes and Woolley in their roles, though they did add Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan to the cast. Though Wickes did frequently return to Broadway throughout the 1940s, her career remained firmly anchored on the West Coast after that, except for a return to the Great White Way in 1979 to play Aunt Eller in a revival of Oklahoma!

The movie of The Man Who Came to Dinner was released in 1942, a particularly busy year for Wickes who also co-starred with Bette Davis in Now, Voyager. She appeared in the short Keeping Fit which also featured Robert Stack, Broderick Crawford and Andy Devine as Wickes' husband. Wickes also landed in the cast of two musicals: Private Buckaroo with The Andrews Sisters and The Mayor of 44th Street starring George Murphy that was part musical, part gangster story. She aided Penny Singleton in her popular series with the installment Blondie's Blessed Event and she teamed with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in their comic mystery Who Done It? All of those released in what was essentially her first year in movies. The following year brought fewer roles as she headed back East for more stage work. A couple of film roles went uncredited, but she did appear in three more musicals: another with Andrews Sisters (How's About It?), another that featured Andy Devine (Rhythm of the Islands) and a third that featured a young singer named Frank Sinatra (Higher and Higher). Wickes didn't make another film until 1948.

When she did return to the West Coast, her first feature in 1948 was June Bride, once again with Bette Davis (whom she'd work again with in 1952's The Actress), but she really began to make her mark in the fledgling medium of television, beginning with two appearances on The Actor's Studio. She appeared on many of the live theater shows, including re-creating her role of Miss Preen in a production of The Man Who Came to Dinner (and she reprised it again in a 1972 TV movie). A friendship with Lucille Ball led to her guest appearance on an infamous episode of I Love Lucy as the ballet instructor Madame Le Mond. Ball and Wickes' friendship led to frequent guest appearances on every TV series in which Ball ever starred.

On the feature side of things, she appeared with Doris Day in On Moonlight Bay, whom she teamed again with in I'll See You in My Dreams, By the Light of the Silvery Moon and two episodes of Day's TV show. Once someone met her, they seemed to develop a loyalty to Wickes, working with her again and again. She worked with Glenn Ford in five films, the most notable being 1957's Don't Go Near the Water and the 1960 remake of Cimarron.

Aside from guest shots, Wickes had many recurring and regular roles on television series throughout her long career including Make Room for Daddy, Dennis the Menace, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Doc, The Father Dowling Mysteries and, though some episodes appeared after her death, her voice was heard on the animated series Life with Louie featuring comic Louie Anderson. Two of her most memorable guest shots appeared on Sanford & Son as a housekeeper Fred and Lamont hire but can't bring themselves to fire, even though she's terrible and as Hot Lips' visiting supervising colonel on M*A*S*H who tries to seduce Frank.

Throughout her many decades an actress, there were still other notable feature films. She was housekeeper to Dean Jagger's general as Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye plotted to cheer the old man up in White Christmas. Her voice graced Disney's original animated 101 Dalmatians. She helped populate River City in The Music Man. She put on a nun's habit alongside Rosalind Russell in The Trouble With Angels directed by Ida Lupino and its sequel (though Lupino sat that one out). She played Meryl Streep's grandmother and Shirley MacLaine's mom in 1990's Postcards From the Edge. She strapped on a nun's habit again as Sister Mary Lazarus opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and its sequel. In the 1994 Little Women with Winona Ryder, she played Aunt March. Her final film, released after her death, again featured only that remarkable voice as she gave life to the gargoyle Laverne in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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As a kid, Mary was the housekeeper on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Miss Cathcart on Dennis the Menace. It wasn't until I got much older when I realized how amazing an acting talent she was, particularly in The Man Who Came to Dinner and one of my favorite Abbott & Costello films, Who Done It?. She's an absolute treasure.
One fine tribute to a talented character actor, Ed. I always enjoyed her moments wherever she'd pop up (TV, film, interviews). Thanks for this.
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