Jane Wyatt: ‘Star Trek’ & ‘Father Knows Best’ + ‘Lost Horizon’ actress dead at 96
Actress Jane Wyatt, best remembered as the idealized all-American suburban mother in the 1950s television series Father Knows Best, as Spock’s human mother in the 1960s TV series Star Trek, and as the object of Ronald Colman’s passion in the 1937 version of Lost Horizon, died of “natural causes” on Friday, Oct. 20, at her home in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air. Jane Wyatt (born on Aug. 12, 1910, in Campgaw, New Jersey) was 96. Several years ago, she suffered – and recovered from – a stroke.
Jane Wyatt movies
On the big screen, the Broadway-trained Jane Wyatt failed to make much of an impact, usually playing pretty but innocuous leading ladies in about 20 films in the 1930s and 1940s. The most important of those was Frank Capra’s 1937 romantic fantasy Lost Horizon, adapted by Robert Riskin from James Hilton’s novel. In the eventual Best Picture Academy Award nominee, Wyatt exudes such powerful charm that British diplomat Ronald Colman braves avalanches and snowstorms to return to her arms in Shangri-La.
Among Jane Wyatt’s other notable – even if mostly decorative – big-screen roles were:
- Estella opposite Phillips Holmes’ Pip in Universal’s minor 1934 version of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, directed by Stuart Walker.
- Amnesiac’s Dennis Morgan’s (second) wife in Lewis Seiler’s 1941 comedy Kisses for Breakfast.
- One of the women in Cary Grant’s life – along with Other Girlfriend June Duprez and Mother Ethel Barrymore – in the Clifford Odets-directed 1944 melodrama None But the Lonely Heart.
- Dana Andrews’ wife in Elia Kazan’s well-received 1947 courthouse drama Boomerang!.
- Dorothy McGuire’s sister in Kazan’s socially conscious Best Picture Academy Award winner Gentleman’s Agreement, about anti-Semitism.
- Dick Powell’s wife in André De Toth’s 1948 film noir Pitfall, clueless that husband Powell is having an affair with sultry Lizabeth Scott.
- Gary Cooper’s wife in Delmer Daves’ 1949 World War II-set drama Task Force.
Jane Wyatt television work: ‘Father Knows Best’
After two decades as a film actress and following a relatively brief return to the stage, Jane Wyatt became a household name not only in the United States but around much of the world thanks to a television series not that different from most Hollywood B movies of the ’30s and ’40s: Father Knows Best, a paean to idealized (i.e., reactionary) American suburban values, co-starring former MGM leading man Robert Young.
And that’s how the sophisticated, New York-raised daughter of an investment banker and a drama critic became known the world over as the bourgeois Midwestern suburbanite Margaret Anderson, the no-nonsense but traditionalist wife of insurance salesman Jim Anderson, and mother of a trio of children (Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin).
Note: Father Knows Best began as radio series starring Robert Young in 1949. His radio wives were initially June Whitley and later Jean Vander Pyl. In May 1954, former Paramount contract player Ellen Drew played Young’s wife in the unofficial Father Knows Best pilot, The Ford Television Theatre‘s “Keep It in the Family.” The first episode of the actual television series, starring Young and Wyatt, aired on CBS in October.
The wildly popular series ran from 1954 to 1960, along the way earning Jane Wyatt three Emmys for her Never Never Suburbia Mom. Additionally, there would be cast reunions in two 1977 made-for-TV movies: Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas.
‘Star Trek’: Spock’s mother Amanda Grayson
Following Father Knows Best, Jane Wyatt was seen in a number of other television series, among them Wagon Train, Going My Way, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and St. Elsewhere. She also played Anna, mother of the Virgin Mary (Madeleine Stowe), in Bernard L. Kowalski’s 1978 TV movie The Nativity.
Apart from Father Knows Best‘s Margaret Anderson, Jane Wyatt’s most famous television role was that of a Mom of a different variety: Amanda Grayson, the human mother of the part-Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy), in Star Trek‘s 1967 episode “Journey to Babel.” Wyatt would reprise the role in the Nimoy-directed feature Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).
Jane Wyatt: First-rate actress
About five years ago, I briefly met Jane Wyatt at a party at the house of film historian Anthony Slide and UCLA film preservationist Robert Gitt. Wyatt was courteous, but had a distinctively aloof, almost imperial, manner. She was definitely not my – and probably nobody’s – idea of an American suburban grandma.
Tony later told me she was an ardent advocate of liberal causes; in fact, Wyatt’s film career was reportedly curtailed in the late ’40s as a result of her vocal opposition to the U.S. Congress’ right-wing demagogue Joseph McCarthy.
What I’m trying to say is: If Jane Wyatt’s traditional suburban mom fooled people into believing she was playing herself, her three Father Knows Best Emmys were totally well deserved.
Jane Wyatt Father Knows Best publicity shot: CBS.