Sunday, October 22, 2006

Phyllis Kirk and Jane Wyatt Pass On

Two actresses who made their names in television have both recently died. The first was Phyllis Kirk, who died Thursday at age 79 from a post cerebral aneurysm. Although perhaps best known for her role in the horror classic House of Wax (which starred the legendary Vincent Price), her career would largely be in television.

Kirk was born Phyllis Kirkegaard in Plainsfield, New Jersey on September 18, 1929. While in her teens she moved to New York City to break into acting, working various odd jobs until she could make a living at her craft. She made her first appearance on film in the movie Our Very Own in 1950 in the role of Zara. She appeared in various minor roles in movies before her big break came in 1953 with the release of House of Wax. In the film Kirk played raven haired beauty Sue Allen, who is stalked by mad wax sculptor Henry Jarrod (the great Vincent Price). She would go onto have roles in the films Thunder Over the Plains Crime Wave, the Jerry Lewis vehicle The Sad Sack.

Despite the success of House of Wax, Kirk's career would primarily be in television. Even before her memorable appearance in House of Wax, she first appeared on the small screen in The Philco Television Playhouse in 1952. She would go onto have dramatic roles in some of the most prestigious anthology series of the era: Armstrong Circle Theatre, The U.S. Steel Hour, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. She would guest star on such shows as The Name of the Game and The F.B.I.. Her biggest claim to fame on television may well have been her role as Nora Charles on the TV version of The Thin Man, which ran for one year on NBC in the '57-'58 season.

In the Seventies Kirk left television for the stage, then went into public relations. She was a publicist for CBS News for many years before retiring in 1992.

The second actress to die of late was a television legend. Jane Wyatt died Friday in her sleep from natural causes at the age of 96. She is perhaps best known as Margaret Anderson, the mother on Father Knows Best, and as Amanda, the mother of Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

Jane Wyatt was born August 12, 1910 in Campgaw, New Jersey to a wealthy family. Her father was a Wall Street broker and her mother was a drama critic. She grew up in New York City. After attending Barnard College, she became an apprentice with Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for six months. Wyatt made her Broadway debut as a performer in The Midnight Rounders of 1921 in 1921. She would go onto several roles on Broadway, among them Dinner at Eight, Conquest, and For Services Rendered. She was signed by Universal in 1934, making her first screen appearance in the James Whale movie One More River. She then rotated between the screen and stage. On film she appeared as Estella in the 1934 adaptation of Great Expectations and the film The Luckiest Girl in the World. On stage, besides the aforementioned plays, she appeared in The Mad Hopes and The Joyous Season.

Her big break came with Frank Capra's film version of Lost Horizon, playing the role of Sondra Bizet. Although Wyatt would continue to appear on stage, her career was increasingly focused on film. She appeared in such films as Hurricane Smith, Army Surgeon, Boomerang!, Gentleman's Agreement, and My Blue Heaven.

Wyatt continued to appear on Broadway, although less frequently after the Thirties. Among the plays in which she had roles were The Bishop Misbehaves, Night Music, Quiet, Please!, and Hope for the Best. She last appeared on stage in 1951 in The Autumn Garden.

With the Fifties Wyatt's career turned towards television. She first appeared on the small screen in an episode of the anthology series Nash Airflyte Theatre in 1951. She would go onto appear on such shows as the legendary Your Show of Shows, Lights Out, and Robert Montgomery Presents. It was in 1955 that Father Knows Best debuted. On the sitcom Wyatt played the mother of the household, Margaret Anderson. The show ran for six years, with 207 episodes. She won three Emmy awards for her role on the show. Wyatt would go onto to appear in several other TV series, among them Studio One, The U.S. Steel Hour, Wagon Train, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

It was a 1967 guest appearance on a then obscure show called Star Trek that would bring Wyatt her other famous role. In the episode "Journey to Babel" Jane Wyatt played Amanda Grayson, the human mother of Mr. Spock. Wyatt was perfect in the role and as perfect as a match for a Vulcan as there ever could be. Amanda was patient, kind, and understanding, but at the same time strong willed enough to hold her own with her husband Sarek and their son Spock. Although Amanda only appeared once on the original series, Wyatt made a huge impression in the role and it would become her best remembered role besides that of Margaret Anderson. She would reprise her role in the Star Trek movie, Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home.

Wyatt would go onto several more guest appearances on such shows as Love American Style, Marcus Welby, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. She appeared in the recurring role of Katherine Auschlander, the wife of Dr. Auschlander. Wyatt also appeared in several TV movies, including Amelia Earhart, A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, and Family Knows Best reunion movie, Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas. Her last appearance on the TV documentary Frank Capra's American Dream.

Both Phyllis Kirk and Jane Wyatt were gifted actresses who had a large impact on television. Kirk was undoubtedly beautiful and, although utilised primarily as a damsel in distress in film, had a real gift for drama. She could also do well in light comedy, as her role as Nora Charles in the TV version of The Thin Man proved.

As to Jane Wyatt, there is a reason she is a television legend. Wyatt had a gift for playing women who were kind and understanding, yet possessed of a strong will of their own. Indeed, one of the things that separates Father Knows Best from other comedies (besides the fact that it wasn't the least bit smarmy) is the fact that Margaret Anderson, although understanding and gentle, could hold her own with both her husband and her children. She was no pushover. This is even truer of both Amanda on Star Trek and Katherine Auschlander on St. Elsewhere. Both women were well equipped to deal with stubborn men, whether it was the relentlessly logical (and though they would not admit it, arrogant) Sarek and Spock or the painfully stubborn Dr. Norman Auschlander. Playing strong women who are at the same time understanding and kind is, no doubt, a difficult task, yet Wyatt played those roles with ease. Wyatt is a legend who won't soon be forgotten.

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