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Thursday 19 October 2017

Jane Wyman

Oscar-winner, former wife of US president Ronald Reagan and star of Falcon Crest

Jane Wyman, who has died aged 93, was one of the few Hollywood stars to have had an equally successful television career; in later life she also became well known as the first Mrs Ronald Reagan.

In the late Forties and early Fifties, Jane Wyman was such a potent box office draw that audiences queued around the block. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar three times, and won the award in 1949 for her role as a deaf mute who is raped and made pregnant by a bully in Johnny Belinda.

Wyman was at the height of her film career in the mid-Fifties when she launched her first television series, Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre, an anthology series which presented a different drama each week and for which she was nominated for an Emmy.

In the Eighties she gained a new generation of fans with her portrayal of the evil Californian matriarch Angela Channing in the CBS soap Falcon Crest, a role for which she won several awards.

In 1938 she had co-starred with Ronald Reagan in the B-movie Brother Rat and she rejoined him in the sequel, Brother Rat and the Baby (1940). Married to her first (or, by some accounts, second) husband at the time, she was soon divorced, and the couple married in 1940. They had had three children -- Maureen, Michael and another daughter who lived for just nine hours.

But after their marriage their careers diverged, with Jane Wyman rising towards the top of her profession, while Reagan languished in the B-movie league. She told friends that she found him dull and in 1948 she obtained a divorce.

After winning her Oscar the following year, Jane Wyman observed in an admirably brief acceptance speech: "I won this award for keeping my mouth shut, so I think I'll do it again now." Reagan excluded all references to Jane from the original draft of his memoirs, An American Life, and had to be coaxed by his editor into allowing his ghostwriter to insert a brief four lines about her into the manuscript.

She was born Sarah Jane Mayfield at Saint Joseph, Missouri, on January 4, 1914 (although some accounts give a later date, January 5, 1917). Her father was the town's mayor and her mother a struggling actress.

In 1921 her parents were divorced, and the following year her father died suddenly and mysteriously aged 27. Her mother was unable to cope on her own, so Sarah Jane was taken in by neighbours, the Fulks family, and took their name.

In 1928 she moved to southern California, where her mother tried to start her own acting career. When that was unsuccessful, she touted Sarah Jane round as an alternative, but again with no success, and they then returned to Missouri together.

In 1930 Sarah Jane changed her name to Jane Durrell and began a career as a singer on radio. Two years later she was in Hollywood, obtaining bit parts. After changing her surname from Durrell to Wyman, she was given a contract by Warner Brothers. Her big break came in 1937 with a major role in Public Wedding (1937).

In 1937 she married Myron Futterman, whom she divorced the following year. It was also rumoured, though never confirmed, that she had contracted an earlier marriage with an Ernest Wyman in 1933.

Jane Wyman gained critical acclaim for her role as Ray Milland's long-suffering wife in The Lost Weekend (1945). The following year, she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Ma Baxter in The Yearling (1946, with Gregory Peck).

She starred in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). She appeared in Frank Capra's Here Comes the Groom (1951), Michael Curtiz's Story of Will Rogers (1952), and the first film version of The Glass Menagerie (1950).

She also starred in the immensely popular So Big (1953), Lucy Gallant (1955) and Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955).

After her first foray into television Jane Wyman returned to Hollywood in Holiday for Lovers (1959), Pollyanna (1960), and -- her final big screen film -- How to Commit Marriage (1969). In the Seventies she took guest roles in television series and starred in two films made for television.

In later episodes of Falcon Crest she was plagued by bouts of ill health -- in 1986 her character disappeared from the show for two episodes while Jane Wyman had abdominal surgery.

Three years later her character had to lie comatose, with her family fighting over the anticipated spoils, while Jane Wyman spent time in hospital being treated for diabetes and a liver ailment. Ignoring her doctors' orders, she returned to the show for the final three episodes in 1990.

After her divorce from Reagan, Jane Wyman married the bandleader Frederick Karger in 1952. They divorced three years later, remarried in 1961 but divorced for a second time in 1965.

She never remarried, but converted to Roman Catholicism, obtaining a special indult from her bishop to receive communion because of her turbulent matrimonial past.

During the mid-Nineties she lived in seclusion, emerging only occasionally to attend funerals, such as for her daughter Maureen in 2001.

In 2004, after the death of President Reagan, she broke her silence regarding her former husband, praising him as "a great president and a great, kind and gentle man".

She is survived by her adopted son, Michael, a radio talk show host.

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