With Valentine’s Day looming, it seems appropriate to remember one of TV’s great domestic comedies, I Love Lucy. As all of us know, the course of true love never did run smooth for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. They may have created a TV empire, but (thanks at least in part to Desi’s chronic philandering) they didn’t manage to make a go of marriage.
Things may not have worked out between Lucy and Desi, but throughout much of her adult life Lucy had the benefit of a great, supportive friendship with one of Hollywood’s most memorable character actresses, Mary Wickes. You may not know her name, but I’m betting the face is familiar. That’s why my colleague Steve Taravella has called his fascinating 2013 biography, Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before.
Mary Wickes, born Mary Isabella Wickenhauser (1910-1995) was a tall, lanky, stern-looking Midwesterner with a flair for comedy. After earning guffaws in the Broadway production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, she made the trip to Hollywood to reprise her role, that of a starchy, indignant nurse nicknamed “Miss Bedpan.” Beginning in the 1930s, she played many nurses, housekeepers, and nuns (notably in 1992’s Sister Act). She also frequently took on the role of a man-crazy spinster, though lovers of screen musicals may remember her as part of Mrs. Eulalie McKechnie Shinn’s loyal entourage of Iowa housewives in The Music Man.
In the early days of television, Wickes took pride in creating the role of Mary Poppins for the famous Studio One. She was often featured on Lucille Ball's various TV shows, most memorably (in an episode of the I Love Lucy series) as a stern ballet instructor forced to put up with Lucy’s shenanigans at the barre. One of her most eccentric showbiz assignments was to pose for the animators at Disney as a live-action model for Cruella de Vil in the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Hollywood is full of talented supporting players, but Taravella’s biography has convinced me that Mary Wickes was one of a kind. In wild and crazy SoCal she lived the life of a Victorian maiden-lady. “Mind your manners” was her favorite adage, and she turned down major roles (such as one in the PG-13 rated Mrs. Doubtfire) when she disapproved of the language in the screenplay. But generally she was devoted to her work, and continued to pursue roles up into her eighties. (As someone who obsessively falsified her birthdate, she tried hard to hide from the studios her actual age.). She was adored by co-workers; Taravella includes a sweet anecdote about her early friendship with young Johnny Whitaker, with whom she co-starred on a Saturday morning TV show called Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. On set, she spent hours patiently tutoring the young boy in her personal dramatic tricks, which included what she called the “butterfly double take.” Years later, she gifted Whitaker and his bride with a butterfly-shaped trivet in memory of the good times they had spent together.
Though Mary Wickes had many friends, most agreed that they rarely got a glimpse of her inner self. In L.A., her closest companion was her mother, a kindly woman who lived with Mary until her death. Especially after losing her mother, Mary devoted much of her free time to her local Episcopal Church and to volunteer work at the area’s hospitals. She also liked to give luncheons and teas at the modest Century City condo she had filled with family heirlooms. Curiously, many of her “gentlemen callers” were gay men. No one is quite clear on whether she fully grasped the implications of that fact.
Here are some glimpses of Early Mary Wickes, notably with Jimmy Durante in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Be warned that the pop music score is annoying in the extreme!