Actress Phyllis Thaxter, Superman's Mom, Dies at 92

2:37 PM PST 08/15/2012 by Mike Barnes
CBS Photo Archive

She played Ma Kent in the 1978 superhero film after appearing years earlier in such classics as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Act of Violence.”

Phyllis Thaxter, the wholesome actress who played Ma Kent in 1978’s Superman and the faithful girlfriend to vengeful POW Robert Ryan in the 1948 film noir classic Act of Violence, has died. She was 92.

Thaxter died Tuesday at her home in Orlando after a long bout with Alzheimer's, according to her daughter, actress Skye Aubrey

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A contract player at MGM and Warner Bros. in the 1940s and ’50s before her career was derailed by illness, Thaxter also starred in the psychological thriller Bewitched (1945), playing opposite Edmund Gwenn as a woman fighting to hold off a conniving, murderous alter ego.

“She was one of the most beautiful and patrician icons of the golden age of movies, TV and theater,” veteran movie critic Rex Reed told The Hollywood Reporter.

Born Nov. 20, 1919, in Portland, Maine, her mother was a former Shakespearean actress and her father a state Supreme Court justice. She joined the Montreal Repertory Theatre troupe as a teenager before graduating to Broadway. Appearing in such productions as Claudia and the 1940 drama There Shall Be No Night -- whose cast included Alfred LuntLynn FontanneSydney Greenstreet and Montgomery Clift -- Thaxter attracted the attention of Hollywood and signed with MGM in the early '40s.

Her film debut came in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) as the wife of Van Johnson. A year later, she starred in Bewitched and then appeared in Week-End at the Waldorf, a remake of the Greta Garbo classic Grand Hotel.

The hazel-eyed brunette followed with The Sea of Grass (1947), opposite Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; Tenth Avenue Angel (1948) with Margaret O’Brien; Blood on the Moon, a Western with Robert Mitchum; and Fred Zinneman’s taut Act of Violence (1948), as the woman who stands by Ryan, an embittered POW out for revenge against his former war buddy Van Heflin.

Thaxter then joined Warner Bros. and appeared in such films as Michael Curtiz'sThe Breaking Point (1950) with John Garfield and Patricia NealCome Fill the Cup (1951) with Gig YoungSpringfield Rifle (1952) with Gary Cooper; another Curtiz film, Jim Thorpe — All-American (1951), with Burt Lancaster; and She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) with Ronald Reagan. However, she contracted a form of infantile paralysis while visiting her family in Portland, Maine, and her contract was terminated.

That led Thaxter to television, where she appeared in guest-starring roles in Lux Video Theatre, Climax!, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Defenders, Medical CenterMarcus Welby, M.D. and many other series.

In 1978, Thaxter made one final movie splash when she was cast along with Glenn Ford as Clark Kent’s adoptive parents on Earth in Richard Donner’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. Her daughter Skye was married to Superman executive producer Iiya Salkind.

“I worked harder on that film than anything I’d done — I couldn’t be bad,” Thaxter once said.

The actress, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, spent the 1980s on the stage in such productions as The Little Foxes with Anne Baxter and The Gin Game with Larry Gates.

In 1944, Thaxter married James Aubrey Jr., who was president of CBS in the early 1960s and then was hired by Kirk Kerkorian to preside over MGM during a brutal budget-slashing period in the '70s. They divorced in 1962 (he died in 1994). Thaxter then wed former Princeton football star Gilbert Lea, a marriage that lasted for 46 years until his death in May 2008.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include grandchildren Devin, Jessica, Jackie, Anastasia and Sebastian and great-grandson Elijah.

E-mail: Mike.Barnes@THR.com

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

 

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