Jane Wyatt dies; Emmy-winning TV mom

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Jane Wyatt, who won three Emmys for her portrayal of Margaret Anderson on the classic TV series "Father Knows Best," has died. She was 96.

Wyatt died Friday in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Bel-Air, Calif., according to publicist Meg McDonald.

In an era where TV families were not dysfunctional, Wyatt epitomized the strong supportive wife and mother, co-starring with Robert Young in "Father" as the quintessential Midwestern couple raising three children. Wyatt brought a relaxed, warmhearted intelligence to her role and appeared in 207 half-hour episodes from 1954-60. Her three Emmys as best actress in a dramatic series came in 1958-60.

"Being a family show, we all had to stick around," she once said. "Even though each show was centered on one of the five members of the family, I always had to be there to deliver such lines as 'Eat your dinner, dear' or 'How did you do in school today?' We got along fine, but after the first few years, it's really difficult to have to face the same people day after day."

Remarkably, she also was Mr. Spock's mom: Wyatt appeared in 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," replaying a role she once had performed in an episode of the original TV series. That appearance was her last movie role, while she co-starred in two "Father" reunions in 1977.

Her great movie role was in Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon," in which she played a young beauty who was among those who crash-landed in the Tibetan mountains.

Jane Waddington Wyatt was born Aug. 10, 1910, in Campgaw, N.J. Her upbringing was patrician: Her father was a Wall Street investment banker, and her mother was a drama critic. She attended several private schools, where she developed an interest in acting, and then attended Barnard College. After two years at Barnard, she left to study at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Mass. While there, she landed a role as Rose Hobart's understudy in "Trade Winds." She went on to take over Margaret Sullavan's role in "Dinner at Eight."

Wyatt signed a studio contract at Universal and made her movie debut in James Whale's "One More River" (1934) and in the same year also played a romantic part in an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." She attained her greatest fame and regard for her performance opposite Ronald Colman in "Horizon." However, she found that her film assignments were desultory -- she had it in her contract with Universal that she could return to the stage for periods of six months at time. She exercised this option from 1937-40, returning to Broadway for what she regarded as more fulfilling work.

Wyatt hit her stride in the movies in the 1940s, playing several perfect wife- or understanding girlfriend-type roles to leading male stars, including Cary Grant in "None But the Lonely Heart" and Gary Cooper in "Task Force." She often was cast as the second female lead, including such performances as in "Gentleman's Agreement" and "My Blue Heaven." Nonetheless, she showed she had range when given the opportunity, delivering strong, moody performances in the docudrama "Boomerang" (1947) and in the film noir "Pitfall" (1948).

In later years critics claimed that TV shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie and Harriet" presented a glossy, unreal view of the American family.

In defense, Wyatt commented in 1966: "We tried to preserve the tradition that every show had something to say. The children were complicated personally, not just kids. We weren't just five Pollyannas."

It was a tribute to the popularity of the show that after its run ended, it continued in reruns on CBS and ABC for three years in primetime, a TV rarity.

On Nov. 9, 1935, Wyatt married Edgar Bethune Ward, and they had two children. They remained married until his death in November 2000.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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