Georgann Johnson, Actress on 'Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,' Dies at 91

Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Georgann Johnson with Robert Ivers in 'Short Cut to Hell,' a 1957 film directed by James Cagney

Her long, standout career included Broadway comedies and work in 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Mr. Peepers' and 'The Trials of Rosie O'Neill.'

Georgann Johnson, the veteran film, television and Broadway actress who portrayed the mother of Jane Seymour's character on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, died June 4 in Los Angeles, daughter Carol Prager announced. She was 91.

Johnson, who spent 60 years in show business, had another regular role as the title character's mom on an earlier CBS drama, The Trials of Rosie O'Neill, starring Sharon Gless, and she played Jack Tripper's (John Ritter) mother on an episode of ABC's Three's Company.

In the 1950s, the Iowa native worked alongside James Dean and Paul Newman on the anthology series Campbell Summer Soundstage and The United States Steel Hour, respectively, and portrayed the wife of a smart-aleck high school history teacher (Tony Randall) on the NBC sitcom Mr. Peepers, starring Wally Cox.

She starred as the kidnapped girlfriend of a cop in Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only feature directed by James Cagney, and appeared as the rich woman who encounters Jon Voight's Joe Buck on Park Avenue in the best picture Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy (1969).

Her film résumé also included roles in Robert Altman's HealtH (1980), Michael Crichton's Looker (1981), Alan Parker's Shoot the Moon (1982), Hal Ashby's The Slugger's Wife (1985) and Blake Edwards' Blind Date (1987).

Johnson was married to actor-director Stanley Prager (Prez in the original Broadway production of The Pajama Game) from 1956 until his death in 1972. They met when they appeared together in a 1953 Broadway revival of Room Service, featuring Jack Lemmon.

Prager gave up his career as an actor after he testified in 1955 as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Johnson later appeared in two films directed by Martin Ritt, who had been caught in the Hollywood blacklist as well: The Front (1976) and Murphy's Romance (1985).

Johnson also appeared on Broadway in the comedies Reclining Figure, directed by Abe Burrows (CBS newsman Mike Wallace also was in that cast); Drink to Me Only, directed by George Abbott; and Critic's Choice, directed by Otto Preminger and also starring Henry Fonda.

Born on Aug. 15, 1926, in Decorah, Iowa, Johnson received her bachelor's degree from Luther College in her hometown and a master's in oratory from Northwestern University, where her classmates included Paul Lynde, William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett.

She moved to New York in 1950 and started doing live TV commercials. "I did one for [the deodorant] Arrid, and I had to say, 'Arrid has such a lovely, delicate fragrance,'" she once recalled. "But I said, 'Arrid has such a lovely, delicate flavor.' I just about died. I remember saying, 'You don't have to pay me.'"

In 1953, Johnson portrayed the wife of a warden opposite Dean (as a convict) in the drama "Life Sentence" for Campbell Summer Soundstage. She then co-starred with Newman in the original 1956 production of Bang the Drum Slowly.

Mr. Peepers, Johnson remembered, "was a terribly good and terribly funny show and yet very gentle. I realized how much a special thing it was at the time."

At the urging of Sheldon Harnick, a fellow Northwestern graduate (and future Fiddler on the Roof lyricist), Johnson submitted a song to the 1950-52 CBS program Songs for Sale, hosted by Steve Allen. Peggy Lee performed her song, and Johnson won the first prize of $100. 

In 1956, Allen wrote songs for a live TV musical, The Bachelor, and Johnson not only co-starred as one of the bachelor's love interests — along with Carol Haney, Jayne Mansfield and Julie Wilson — she introduced the hit tune, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big."

Johnson also played a menacing princess on the DuMont series Captain Video and His Video Rangers and went on to appear on dozens of other shows, including DangerThe MillionaireAlfred Hitchcock PresentsDr. KildareThe FugitiveThe JeffersonsWiseguySt. ElsewhereOur Family Honor, SeinfeldStar Trek: The Next Generation and Cold Case.

On soap operas, she portrayed Ellen Grant on Another World and its spinoff, Somerset, and worked on The DoctorsAs the World Turns and All My Children as well.

Johnson also was married to Jack Tenner, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, from 1981 until his death in 2008. Survivors include her four daughters with Prager — Carol, Annie, Sally and Molly — and grandchildren Hannah, Gabriel and Caroline.

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