Just a Couple of Characters, Part 4: Mary Wickes and Susan Oliver

We wrap up our series Just a Couple of Characters this week with Mary Wickes and Susan Oliver. Mary and Susan are very different character actors, but you will immediately recognize them. Let’s learn a bit more.

Mary Wickes

Photo: imdb.com

It’s not surprising that Mary shortened her last name to “Wickes” after being born Mary Wickenhauser in 1910 in St. Louis. Her father was a banker, and the family had plenty of money. After high school, Mary attended Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in political science, planning a career in law. One of her professors suggested she try theater, and she dipped her toe into it doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Photo: flickr.com

After deciding a career in acting was for her, she moved to New York. She quickly found a role in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” on Broadway in 1934. In this show, which starred Henry Fonda, Mary was Margaret Hamilton’s understudy. Mary had a chance to perform during the run and received excellent reviews.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner

Mary understood that comedy was the field she needed to pursue. She was lucky enough to continue getting roles on Broadway, appearing in several shows throughout the 1930s, including “Stage Door” in 1936 and “Hitch Your Wagon” in 1937. She also was cast in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” as Nurse Preen with Monty Woolley. She continued to receive encouraging reviews. When Warner Brothers decide to turn the play into a movie, both Mary and Woolley were part of the cast. Mary became known for being a bit sarcastic and witty. She was given roles in the film, Now Voyager with Bette Davis, again playing a nurse.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

Mary flip flopped from Broadway to Hollywood, taking roles that interested her. She would appear in both Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day; White Christmas (1954), and The Music Man (1962).

Mary had cornered the market in roles of smart-alecky teachers, nurses, and housekeepers in film. When she transitioned to television, she often continued in these roles. Her first two recurring roles were housekeepers named Alice on Halls of Ivy from 1954-55 and Katie on Annette in 1958. From 1956-1958, she played Liz O’Neill, Danny Thomas’s press agent on Make Room for Daddy. Throughout the 1950s she also appeared on numerous shows including Zorro.

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One of my favorite episodes with Mary was the 1952 episode “The Ballet” on I Love Lucy where Wickes played Madame Lamond, a formidable ballet teacher who taught Lucy. Wickes and Lucy would remain life-long friends. After Mary’s death, Lucie Arnez talked about her relationship with their family: “For my brother and me, Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady.” Mary would appear on numerous episodes of Lucille Ball’s other shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

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In the 1960s, Mary continued to show up on a variety of shows. We see her on My Three Sons, Bonanza, F-Troop, The Doris Day Show, The Donna Reed Show, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: The Gertrude Berg Show, Dennis the Menace, and Temple Houston. In the Gertrude Berg Show, Mary was landlady, Winona Maxfield. She was hilarious on Dennis the Menace, playing Miss Cathcart, an older neighbor looking for a man. On Temple Houston, she played Ida Goff. Temple was Sam Houston’s real son who was a circuit-riding lawyer.  

Photo: en.wikipedia.org
The cast of Doc

As Mary aged, she progressed to the cranky relative or nosy neighbor type of character. In the 1970s she was a regular on Julia, Doc, and The Jimmy Stewart Show. On Julia, she was Dr. Chegley’s wife, Melba. She went back to her role as a nurse on Doc. On the Jimmy Stewart Show, she is Mrs. Bullard. Two of my favorite episodes of her from the 1970s were her roles on Columbo and M*A*S*H. On Columbo, Mary plays a landlady of a victim who’s been murdered. She and Columbo have a priceless conversation during the show, “Suitable for Framing” in 1971. On M*A*S*H, Mary played Colonel Reese who is observing Margaret and the nurses.

Photo: aurorasginjoint.com

In the 1980s, Mary’s schedule slowed down a bit. She did revive her role as a maid on The Love Boat in 1981. From 1989-1991, she took another regular role as housekeeper Marie Murkin on Father Dowling Mysteries.

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In the 1990s, Mary was doing more voice overs. She taped five episodes of Life with Louie which aired from 1995-1997 and was Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Unfortunately, she would not live to see them on the big screen. In 1995, she passed away after having respiratory problems. While a patient in the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. She died of complications caused by the surgery.

Mary never married or had children and as part of her legacy, she left a $2 million donation in memory of her parents to the Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University.

Susan Oliver

Photo: amazon.com

More than twenty years younger than Wickes, Susan Oliver was born in 1932 in New York City. Her real name as Charlotte Gercke. Her father was a political reporter for the New York World. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and she grew up in boarding schools. She traveled with her father to Japan when he took a post there. She studied at the Tokyo International College, studying American pop culture. While Wickes was the wise-cracking comedic foil, Oliver was often the leading lady character with blue eyes, blonde hair and heart-shaped face.

Photo: trekdivos79.blogspot.com
on The Wild Wild West

In 1949, she traveled to LA to see her mother who had found her niche as “astrologer to the stars.” Susan then enrolled at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she continued acting courses at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.

Her first Broadway part came in 1957 as the daughter or a Revolutionary veteran, “Small War on Murray Hill.”

Photo: manfuncle2014.blogspot.com
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Returning to LA, she started a film career. Though she would appear in 15 big-screen movies, television is where she spent most of her time. She put in her due diligence in the 1950s and 1960s. Her first job was on The Goodyear Playhouse in 1955. She continued with a lot of drama and theater for the first few years of her career. She took roles in a variety of shows including: Father Knows Best, Suspicion, The David Niven Show, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Ben Casey, Mannix, Dr. Kildare, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, and the Wild, Wild West.

Photo: imdb.com

I read several times that she turned down lead roles in series to retain her independence, but I never read any specific roles she turned down. In 1966 she accepted a recurring role of Ann Howard in Peyton Place. She had signed a contract for a year, but after five months, her character was killed on the show. She made a pilot for a show titled, “Apartment in Rome” that did not sell.

Photo: en.wikipedia.com
on Peyton Place

Oliver never did get another show of her own, but she continued to guest on shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Love American Style, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Streets of San Francisco, The Love Boat, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, and Simon and Simon.

Photo: flickr.com
on Murder She Wrote

One of the reasons, she didn’t want to be tied down was her interest in flying. In 1959, a Boeing 707 she was a passenger on plummeted 30,000 feet for the Atlantic Ocean before leveling out. After that scare, she decided to learn to become a pilot. In 1964, she started flying single-engine planes. Bill Lear brought her on board to become the first woman to train on his new Lear Jet. She would star in a movie about Amelia Earhart. She also later wrote about her flying experiences in an autobiography, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey in 1983.

Photo: imdb.com

In the mid-1970s, she stopped accepting most acting roles and quit flying. She enrolled at the 1974 AFI Directing Workshop for Women with peers Lily Tomlin, Margot Kidder, Kathleen Nolan, and Maya Angelou. During the final season of M*A*S*H she directed an episode of the show. She would later direct an episode of Trapper John, MD.

At age 58, Oliver was diagnosed with colorectal, and eventually lung, cancer. She died in 1990.

Oliver was an interesting actress. Apparently, she loved acting, but never wanted to be tied down. She not only was a aviator and director but a writer. She was a practicing Buddhist and a baseball expert as well.

Wickes and Oliver were very different women with very different interests and acting roles. They both remained single and devoted themselves to their careers. But they were both women who were always in demand for their acting ability.

Everyone’s Favorite Mother: Rosemary DeCamp

Rosemary DeCamp played the American mother in a variety of films and television series. I remember her as both Ann Marie and Shirley Partridge’s mother. She was born in November of 1910 in Arizona. Her father was a mining engineer and the family relocated often for his job. Her younger brother was 14 years younger than her, so they were both raised almost like only children.

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Rosemary began her radio career in 1937 playing the role of Judy Price, a nurse to Dr. Christian on the long-running show, Dr. Christian. From 1939-1941, she appeared a syndicated soap opera, The Career of Alice Blair.

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1941 was a memorable year for her for several reasons. It was also the year she married John Ashton Shidler, a local judge. The couple were married until his death in 1998, and they raised four daughters.

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When that soap ended, she accepted her first film role in Cheers for Miss Bishop. She worked for a variety of studios. Many of her pictures were made by Warner Brothers. In 1942 she played the mother of George Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In 1943, she took the role of Ronald Reagan’s mother in This is the Army. In the early 1950s, she portrayed Doris Day’s mother in On Moonlight Bay and its sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon.

 

In July of 1946, she and her husband had a close call. They were in their Beverly Hills home when an aircraft crashed into the house next door. The wing cut into their roof and landed in their bedroom. The plane just happened to be an experimental one piloted by Howard Hughes. Hughes was rescued by a bystander before the plane exploded. He was very lucky, receiving only a few broken bones and cuts and abrasions. He paid for the repairs for all the homes involved, and luckily, no one else was hurt.

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She appeared in 38 films during her career, including The Life of Riley with William Bendix as her spouse. In 1949, she again played Peg Riley, this time in a television show with Jackie Gleason. Her husband worked in an aircraft plant and they had two children. Of course, Riley was a bit of a bumbling father and husband, but she loved him and put up with his ineptness. His catchphrase was “What a revoltin’ development this is.”

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She continued with her film work, mixed in with a few television show roles until 1955 when she played widow Margaret MacDonald on Love That Bob/The Bob Cummings Show. Her brother Bob was a photographer and play boy and she lived with him, raising her son Chuck and trying to get her brother to settle down.

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After her role as mother Peg in the 1940s and Margaret in the 1950s, from 1966-1970, she had a recurring role on That Girl as Ann Marie’s mother Helen. She was the voice of reason when her husband got upset about something, typically having to do with Ann’s boyfriend Donald or her living alone in New York.

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Coincidentally, in 1968 she also played the role of Helen on Petticoat Junction. She was not Helen Marie though, she was Kate’s sister who came to help take care of the girls when Bea Benardaret who played Kate was ill in real life.

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It was also in the 1960s that she was the spokesperson for 20 Mule Team Borax, a laundry detergent.

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She continued accepting roles on a variety of television shows from crime dramas to westerns to Love American Style. Continuing her mother-a-decade role, in the 1970s, she showed up as Shirley Partridge’s mother on The Partridge Family. Again, she had to deal with a husband who usually needed some mediation with the family.

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DeCamp continued to take on miscellaneous television roles. In 1989, she filmed an episode of Murder She Wrote. After the taping, she suffered a stroke, and decided to retire from acting.

In 2000, she published her memoir, Tigers in My Lap. The following year she died after contracting pneumonia at the age of 90. I could not find any information about any of her hobbies or interests, but she was an active Democrat all her life.

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She will always be remembered as a caring mother. The Institute of Family Relations granted her its “Mother of Distinction Award,” because they felt she did “more to glorify American motherhood through her film portrayals than any other woman.”

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I Know That Girl From Somewhere: The Career of Meredith MacRae

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Meredith MacRae is one of those actresses almost everyone recognizes but are not always sure why they remember her. Perhaps it was one of her 14 movies. Then again it could be the two television shows she had a regular role on or one of the other 18 shows she appeared on. It might be from a game show where she was a a panelist or as a singer on a variety show or one of her many commercials. Some folks saw her talk show in LA. She also worked hard for a variety of charities and traveled around the country speaking on alcoholism. Viewers might not be exactly sure how they know her, but everyone realizes they liked her. She had that friendly and caring quality.

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MacRae was born on May 30, 1944, in Houston, Texas on a military base where her father was stationed. Her father, Gordon MacRae was a big star, featured in Roger & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and Carousel. Her mother, Sheila MacRae was an actress and comedienne, appearing as Jackie Gleason’s wife on The Honeymooners.

Meredith began her acting career at a young age, receiving a part in By the Light of the Silvery Moon in 1953, which starred her father. Her part was later cut.

Her father struggled with alcoholism, and her parents divorced when she was ten.  Meredith was always close with her siblings.

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She attended UCLA and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She had roles in two of the ever-popular beach blanket movies—Beach Party in 1963 and Bikini Beach in 1964. That same year she married Richard Berger, former president of MGM. They divorced four years later.

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Meredith would appear on the big screen ten more times, none of the movies being well remembered.

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In 1963, Meredith was offered a role on My Three Sons. She played Sally, Mike’s girlfriend and later wife from 1963 until 1965. Although the show was on the air until 1972, Tim Considine who played Mike, left the show in 1965 and the story line was that he and Sally moved to Arizona.

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MacRae was offered another sitcom role when her work on My Three Sons ended. She took the role of Billie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction, appearing in 114 episodes. She was the third star to play Billie Jo. In 1970 the show as cancelled.

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In 1969, Meredith married again, this time to actor Greg Mullavey (best known from his role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). They divorced in 1972 but remained friends and had a daughter Allison. Meredith was extremely close to her daughter and she traveled with her often.

Meredith released two singles with Lori Saunders and Linda Kaye Henning, her sisters on Petticoat Junction. She also had two singles as a solo artist. She was also seen on many game shows including Match Game, Family Feud, and the $10,000 Pyramid.

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Meredith would continue her television career throughout the 1970s and 1980s. She was seen in The Interns, The FBI, The Rockford Files, CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Webster, Magnum PI, and was on my favorite episode of Love American Style.

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Eventually Meredith became a television producer and writer. She also made several PBS specials tackling women’s issues, medical problems, and the aging of America. She received her own talk show which was really an investigative show called “Mid-Morning Los Angeles” for which she won an Emmy.

During the late 1990s, MacRae complained about vertigo and a loss of short-term memory. She was misdiagnosed as having issues related to peri-menopause. In 1999, she struggled with severe headaches and was told it was muscle spasms.  When she went in for a second opinion, she discovered she had Stage 4 brain cancer. She had the tumor removed and then agreed to join an experimental cancer drug treatment group, but she had an allergic reaction which caused her brain to swell. She had more surgeries and then broke her hip.

Many people praised her for maintaining her dignity and sense of humor during this painful time.

Meredith had a way of making others feel important. She had a genuine warmth and was friendly, appearing sincerely interested in others. I read about a Ladies’ Fun Night which she held every month or two. She would invite her friends and a guest speaker. Typically, about 25 women were invited including her old friend Linda Henning.

Meredith always found time to travel to discuss the effects of alcoholism on families. She enjoyed seven years with her father when he was sober before he passed away, and he approved of her speaking engagements.  She also worked for many charities including the League of Women Voters, Women in Film, Committee for the Children’s Burn Foundation, and the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation (UCPF). Her parents had also supported UCPF, and Meredith was their telethon host for 20 years. After she passed away, the MacRae/Edelman Center, a place where adults with cerebral palsy can get help, was named for her.

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When asked what helped her get through some of the tough times in her life, she replied “I believe in getting help from your friends. I don’t know what I would do without my women friends.” Many viewers who never met Meredith in person considered her a friend. She lived an incredibly meaningful life.