Jane Wyman’s name seldom, if ever, comes up now when people discuss the big screen’s most outstanding actresses. She was, however, one of best.
She was born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Missouri on January 4, in either 1914 or 1917. Her father Manning just happened to be the mayor of the town, while her mother Le Juerne was an actress, though not a particularly successful one. Little Sarah was hit with a double whammy when her parents divorced and, within a year, her father passed away, unexpectedly. La Juerne was not ready to deal with being a single mother, so she left Sarah in the care of the Fulks family, who were incredibly generous neighbors, and went off to California to pursue her acting career. When Sarah was a little older, she joined her mother, who even tried to get her involved with acting, but nobody was interested in either of them, prompting them to move back to the “Show Me” state. Sarah was also able to attend school and have a somewhat more stable life for awhile.
Sarah became a radio singer in 1930 and took the professional name “Jane Durell”. In 1932, she began to do bit parts in films, such as The Kid from Spain, My Man Godfrey and Cain and Mabel. She eventually took on the professional name of “Jane Wyman” and was signed to a long-term contract by Warner Bros. Her movie roles got bigger and, by 1939, she had a starring role in a film. One picture she made called BrotherRat may not have been particularly noteworthy were it not for the fact that it introduced her to actor Ronald Reagan. The handsome Irish-American actor not only became her co-star, but would later become her husband.
Jane had already been married at least one time. Her first husband was Myron Futterman and that union lasted only a year. She was later rumored to have married a second time, but no conclusive proof has ever been found. She married Ronald Reagan in 1940. They were apart for long periods of time during World War II, since he was busy making training and propaganda movies for the U.S. government. Their marriage lasted for eight years and they had three children, one of whom died immediately after being born. The thing that seems to have tanked their relationship was Reagan’s growing interest in politics. Reagan was elected president of The Screen Actors Guild and even testified on Capitol Hill during the McCarthy hearings. Jane did not share his passion for politics and left him. She married a final time to Frederick Karger and that marriage, too, was a failure.
Jane seemed pigeonholed into a series of forgettable comedies and melodramas until her breakthrough role in the 1945 film The Lost Weekend. In it, she played Helen St. James, the girlfriend of alcoholic writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland). This movie got her the recognition she finally deserved. The following year, she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her fine work as Ma Baxter in The Yearling. She was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award again in 1949 for her portrayal in Johnny Belinda of rape victim Belinda McDonald, a deaf/mute, which she won. She was nominated two other times, for The Blue Veil in 1952 and Magnificent Obsession in 1955.
Jane Wyman really came into her own in the lush, soap-operish films she starred in during the 1950’s, such as So Big, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Lucy Gallant and Miracle in the Rain. These films dripped in melodrama and audiences loved them. After playing Aunt Polly Harrington in the Disney movie Pollyanna in 1960, .she only made two more films.
She hosted and starred in Jane Wyman Presents on television from 1955-1958, getting an Emmy nomination in 1957. After the show ended, she retired for awhile from acting and would have had an otherwise quiet life had not certain events propelled her into the spotlight again, mainly her ex-husband Ronald Reagan’s election as the 40th President of the United States. Through no effort of her own, she became a “hot” property again and offers for acting work started pouring in. She chose to take the role of Angela Channing, the cunning matriarch of a wealthy family of vinyardists, in the prime-time soap Falcon Crest.
The show ran from 1981-1990. Jane received a Golden Globe nomination and five Soap Opera Digest Award nominations for her work in Falcon Crest. During the last couple of seasons of the show, she was having serious health concerns, but managed to complete the final few episodes. She has appeared only one time since on television, on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Jane Wyman, now in delicate health, resides at a retirement home in Palm Springs, California.