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Oscar-Winning Character Actor Dean Jagger Dies

February 06, 1991|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dean Jagger, the Academy Award-winning character actor known for his firm but kindly demeanor in more than 150 films, died early Tuesday at his home in Santa Monica. He was 87.

His wife, Etta, said Jagger was recovering from the flu but otherwise had been in good health. She said he died in his sleep.

"He was an actor's actor, always there for you professionally and personally. He will be missed," said Ernest Borgnine, who co-starred with Jagger and the late Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock" in 1955.

Jagger won his Oscar as best supporting actor in the 1949 film "Twelve O'Clock High," a World War II character drama. Both the film itself and the lead actor, Gregory Peck, were nominated for Academy Awards, but Jagger was the film's only winner.

"I feel greatly honored. Everything turned out just wonderfully," he said after collecting his Oscar.

The bald, 6-foot-2 actor also won an Emmy in 1979 for his performance on a religious television program, "This Is the Life."

Although most of his career was spent in films, Jagger also earned a large following as Albert Vane, the high school principal on the 1963-65 television series "Mr. Novak." The California Teachers Assn. gave him and series star James Franciscus its Communications Award in 1963.

Jagger made the principal a compassionate and understanding disciplinarian who was sometimes gripped with very human indecision. The actor, who demonstrated a keen conscience about all his work, remonstrated with writers and directors so frequently about the integrity of the role that he had to sit out part of the 1964 season because of ulcers.

"It is unforgivable how bad TV is today," he told the Los Angeles Times as the series drew to a close in 1965. "The people doing it have succumbed to the cliche that there is no time to be good in TV, or that we doing it are lucky to get one good episode out of three. Why?"

Born in Lima, Ohio, Jagger grew up on an Indiana farm and recalled reciting favorite verses to the cows as he milked. At 17, he taught elementary pupils in a rural school. He studied at Wabash College in Greencastle, Ind., but dropped out after two years and went to Chicago determined to become an actor.

After studying at Chicago's Conservatory of Drama, he began his career in vaudeville and on stage in the 1920s.

Jagger made his film debut in 1929 in one of the last silent films, "The Woman From Hell," starring Mary Astor.

"My good notices," he later recalled wryly, "had a reverse effect on the industry, which was suddenly revolutionized by sound pictures. With the one film to my credit, I was considered part of that group of untouchables--silent film stars."

Best known as a character or supporting actor, Jagger occasionally took a lead role as he did in the 1940 film "Brigham Young--Frontiersman." Etta Jagger said that portraying the Mormon leader was one of her husband's favorite roles.

Jagger won the part after starring in the Broadway play "Missouri Legend."

When Darryl F. Zanuck wanted him hired as Brigham Young, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that Jagger had said modestly: "Boys, I don't know anything about your picture business or what I'd be worth in it. . . . I'm going to leave that entirely up to you."

They had planned to pay him $750 a week, she reported, but liked his spirit so much they started him at $1,000.

One of Jagger's best known roles was as the general in "White Christmas," the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby singing the Irving Berlin title classic.

Jagger joked about playing roles as "everybody's father," including the father of Audrey Hepburn in "The Nun's Story" and of Elvis Presley in "King Creole."

Among Jagger's other films were "Wings in the Dark," "13 Hours by Air," "A Yank in London," "Rawhide," "The Robe," "Elmer Gantry," "Jumbo," "The Kremlin Letter" and "The Game of Death."

Besides his wife, Jagger is survived by a daughter, Diane Pearson, and two stepsons, Tom and Lee Winger. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.

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