A Mary Wickes Celebration! (#1): A week-long look at the life of a character actress and the ultimate "I know that face!"

A Mary Wickes Celebration! (#1): A week-long look at the life of a character actress and the ultimate "I know that face!"
Mary Wickes (ca. 1962)

How many times have you been watching a movie and thought, “Dear God, that actress looks familiar!?” You wrack your brain trying to remember the last time you saw them or, heaven forbid, what part they played. Was she a nurse or a World War II General? Was she in that new Tom Hanks movie or the new Batman?

This sensation should be deemed Mary Wickes Syndrome, as she is the ultimate case of “that face, that face, it’s her!” In fact, the only biography written about her is entitled I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before by Steve Taravella. (Taravella’s book, by the way, is the end all and be all when it comes to a book-length study of Wickes, as my blogs barely scratch the surface.)

I first encountered Wickes in the myriad of guest appearances on Lucille Ball’s various sitcoms, as well as Disney’s underrated classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the iconic Nun-based toe-tapper, Sister Act. I was drawn to her because she was, above all, a chameleon who seemed to be able to take on any skin as her own.

SISTER ACT, Mary Wickes, 1992. ©Buena Vista Pictures

SISTER ACT, Mary Wickes, 1992. ©Buena Vista Pictures

In her career, she played numerous nurses and nuns, a mélange of maids, a smattering of society matrons, as well as teachers, gargoyles, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, as well as that “Diva with Bad Driving Habits” Cruella de Vil!

I visited her hometown of St. Louis at the beginning of October to attend a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. While I was there, I took a detour to Washington University, where Mary Wickes’ personal effects, correspondence, photo albums, and various miscellany reside. A week before I was to arrive, I contacted the Special Collections department of the university, on the off chance that I would actually be allowed to peruse Wickes’ papers and private files. To my giddy surprise, I was granted access to six boxes brimming with material from this marvelous actress who, more than a gifted chameleon, was also an intriguing person. (A special thanks must go to WU for allowing me to reproduce my findings for this week of blogs!)

Today’s blog will be a simple introduction to this titan of the stage and screen, while the rest of the week will be devoted to four subjects that I am most interested in writing about regarding Ms. Wickes and an array of her famous friends and roles.

Wickes was born Mary Isabella Wickenhauser on June 13th, 1910. A gifted student, she skipped two grades and excelled at Washington University. Her major was to be law, but she was bitten by the acting bug and never recovered. (I’ve been bitten by the same damn insect, and the wound is fatal, believe me.)

Mary plied her craft on the stage before breaking into the film business, appearing in such classic movies as The Man Who Came to Dinner with Jimmy Durante, Now, Voyager with Bette Davis, White Christmas with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, Holiday Inn, and The Trouble with Angels with Rosalind Russell.

mary-wickes-white-xmas

Her craft was most judiciously applied on the small screen, accumulating such illustrious credits as I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Zorro, M*A*S*H, Murder, She Wrote, and The Love Boat. She also appeared in the well-received Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma in 1979. She was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1962 but, sadly, did not win.

Wickes main character traits, in terms of the roles she inhabited, can best be described as “crusty” and “wise-cracking.” In private, she was an ardent Christian, an intelligent researcher, charitable, and a dedicated friend to stars who were taken aback by her frank, no-nonsense demeanor and loyal friendship.

As I was “rifling through a dead woman’s drawers”, as I like to joke, I was taken aback by how humble she was, despite the fact that she was receiving personal letters from Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Ethel Merman, and other illustrious names. She never wrote a tell-all, let alone a memoir, and never exploited her comrades. She knew what they faced on a daily basis and wanted to be a friend to them, above all, and to be an island in the midst of a turbulent sea.

She was plagued by many maladies during her life, including kidney failure, massive gastrointestinal bleeding, severe low blood pressure, ischemic cardiomyopathy, anemia and breast cancer. She died on October 22nd, 1995 at the age of 85.

This year, October 22nd is this Saturday, marking 21 years since her death. In honor of Mary Wickes and her fascinating life, I am dedicating this entire week to her. I hope that over the course of these five days you will learn more about this actress who undoubtedly played a big part in your past (whether you were aware of her contribution or not.)

As result, I also hope that you are able to gain a new appreciation for the title of Character Actress. It may not have been an “above the title” life, but character actresses such as Wickes, Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy), Eleanor Audley (Lady Tremaine in Disney’s Cinderella and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty), Nancy Kulp (Miss Jane Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies), and legions of others make up the life’s blood of the golden age of television.

As a teaser, to end this first installment, I’d like to share this simple note to Mary from “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle:

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(Mary Wickes Papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, University Archives - Series 7, Box 1)

I hope you join me this week in discovering this brilliant woman, and can say with frenzied gusto, “I know I’ve seen that face before… and it’s Mary Wickes!”


**I implore you to watch my blog this week (October 17th through the 21st) , as I'm devoting the entire week to the life and times of character actress Mary Wickes! I scoured her personal archives at Washinton University in St. Louis and have many fascinating discoveries to share with you!**

I invite you to visit my new website, StevenKrage.com! I'm very proud of my new creation and would love to hear your feedback about it.

And, as always, remember to subscribe to this blog and remember to listen to my podcast, The Objectivist and The Vegan, on SoundCloud with a new episode every Thursday!

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