Born Jane Waddington Wyatt, August 12, 1910, in Campgaw, NJ; died October 20, 2006, in Bel Air, CA. Actress. Though actress Jane Wyatt initially turned down the role of Margaret Anderson on the 1950s TV show, Father Knows Best, her husband convinced her to reconsider the part. Her acceptance of the role made her an instant celebrity and the character became one of the most beloved fictional mothers in pop culture history. Wyatt won three Emmy awards for her work on Father Knows Best.
Wyatt was born in 1910 in Campgaw, New Jersey. Her father was Christopher Wyatt, a wealthy investment banker. Her mother was Euphemia Van Rensselaur Wyatt, a playwright, drama critic, and editor. Wyatt’s childhood was one of affluence and she grew up in New York City. When she came of age, her name was added to the New York Social Register.
Wyatt entered Barnard College, where she studied history. She took a few drama courses and decided to pursue an acting career. After two years at Barnard, she dropped out to enter the apprentice school at the Berkshire Playhouse, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. When Wyatt began working as an understudy on Broadway, the New York Social Register removed her name. She was reinstated when she married Edgar Bethune Ward in 1935.
Wyatt made her debut in the Broadway play, Give Me Yesterday. She later joined the cast of the comedic play Dinner At Eight, and went on tour as well. Her performance led to her Hollywood debut in the 1934 film One More River.
Wyatt is best known for playing the role of Sondra in 1937’s Lost Horizon, co-starring with Ron Colman. She appeared in films alongside stars such as Ethel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant. Most of the characters Wyatt played were girlfriends, wives, and mothers of upstanding leading men. The Washington Post referred to her as one “who specialized in playing well-bred ingénues on stage and film.”
While Wyatt’s television debut was not on the show Father Knows Best, it was the program for which she is best known. Father Knows Best began on radio in 1949. When the producers decided to move the program to television, they approached Wyatt to play the mother, Margaret Anderson, but she declined. She told the Toronto Star, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “I’d been doing a lot of live TV drama in which I was the star. I didn’t want to be just a mother.” After a few months, her husband convinced her to reconsider the role and she changed her mind. She joined Robert Young, who played the father, JimAnderson. Young was the only actor from the radio program to make the switch. The children, played by Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, and Lauren Chapin, rounded out the cast.
Father Knows Best aired on CBS in the 1954-1955 season. CBS removed the program from the schedule the following season, but so many people protested it was picked up by NBC. The show, however, ended its run on CBS in 1960, but reruns continued to air in primetime for three more years.
While many viewers during the 1950s enjoyed the television show, critics claimed it was not a realistic portrayal of family life. The show even came under fire later in the 20th century by feminists who thought the Margaret Anderson character was always subordinate to her husband; Wyatt disagreed. According to the Los Angeles Times, she stated “She was the power behind the throne. She helped her husband out. Mother always knew best, too.”
In addition to Father Knows Best, two reunion TV movies aired in the 1970s, The Father Knows Best Reunion, and Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas. The show has aired around the world. Wyatt found out how popular the show was in Peru, when she found herself surrounded by fans. The sitcom aired there as Papa Lo Sabe Todo.
Though she was a regular in film, Wyatt was happy to find work in television and on stage when she was blacklisted for protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. She also came under fire for being linked to the Lab Theater when she performed in the plays Volpone and The Cherry Orchard. Wyatt was also labeled prematurely anti-fascist because she spoke against Adolf Hitler before the United States had joined World War II.
Wyatt continued working and she guest-starred on the TV series, Star Trek, where she portrayed half-Vulcan Spock’s human mother. She reprised the role for the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Wyatt continued doing regional theater and made guest appearances on television shows. One of her last roles was playing the wife of Dr. Daniel Aus-chlander on the hospital serial, St. Elsewhere. Wyatt’s work on Father Knows Best garnered her three Emmy awards. She also received a citation from the California Assembly. The show itself won the Sylvania Award for Excellence.
In 1990 Wyatt said in an interview, according to Entertainment Weekly, that she had little in common with her most famous character. “I never vacuumed at home wearing my pearls. In fact, I never vacuumed at all; I was always working at the studio.” She died in her home in Bel Air, California, on October 20, 2006. She was 96. Her husband preceded her in death, and she is survived by two sons, three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Sources: Chicago Tribune, October 23, 2006, sec. 1, p. 11; Entertainment Weekly, November 3, 2006, p. 23; Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2006, p. B11; New York Times, October 23, 2006, p. A22; Times (London), October 26, 2006, p. 76; Washington Post, October 23, 2006, p. B4.
—Ashyia N. Henderson