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Mary Wickes; Veteran Comedic Actress

October 25, 1995|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Wickes, a veteran comedian who most recently delighted audiences as Aunt March in the feature film "Little Women" and as a tough-as-nails singing nun in "Sister Act" and its sequel, has died. She was 85.

Miss Wickes, an actress on stage, screen and television for 67 years, died Sunday night at UCLA Medical Center of complications following surgery, writer-producer Madelyn Pugh Davis told The Times on Tuesday.

Davis said the actress, who lived in Century City, had been in good health until a few days ago, when she entered the hospital with respiratory problems. During her stay, Miss Wickes fell and broke her hip, prompting the surgery.

The ubiquitous Miss Wickes appeared in 50 feature films, 27 major Broadway productions and 10 television series in addition to hundreds of stock theater plays and radio and television programs.

"She has been called the last of the great character actors, and that was right," said Davis, a longtime friend who wrote many segments of the classic "I Love Lucy" series, including one featuring Miss Wickes as Lucille Ball's ballet teacher. "When Mary came on, you knew you were in for a lot of laughs."

Despite her age, Miss Wickes was still working. Howard Green, spokesman for Walt Disney Studios where Miss Wickes made many films, said she had just concluded taping the voice of a gargoyle for Disney's animated feature "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," scheduled for release next June.

The versatile actress frequently appeared as a housekeeper or as a nurse, once quipping: "I've become queen of the wheelchairs."

Her breakthrough role came on Broadway in 1939 in the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner," when she played Miss Preen, the harassed nurse pushing Monte Wooley's wheelchair. She made her movie debut in the same role in 1942 in the film version of the play.

Born Mary Isabelle Wickenhauser in St. Louis, Miss Wickes received her undergraduate degree from Washington University and, as an octogenarian, earned a master's at UCLA.

Graduating from Washington at age 18, she landed a small part in a St. Louis Little Theater production of "The Solid South," in which she was spotted by Broadway director F. Cole Strickland. He whisked her off to the Berkshire Playhouse and then to Broadway, where she made her debut in 1935 in Kaufman's "Stage Door."

For several decades, Miss Wickes traveled between the coasts, starring frequently on Broadway and in Hollywood. She worked easily in radio, and when television developed, she gravitated to that, too.

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"Every live TV show has the same excitement as the opening night of a Broadway show," she told The Times in 1951 in the infancy of television. "This keys up performers and makes them spark."

Miss Wickes kept house on the television series "The Peter and Mary Show" in 1950, "Bonino" in 1953, "The Halls of Ivy" in 1954, "Annette" in 1958, "Sigmund & the Sea Monsters" from 1973 to 1975 and "The Father Dowling Mysteries" from 1989 to 1991. Other memorable series roles were the landlady on "Mrs. G. Goes to College" in 1961-62, the doctor's wife on "Julia" from 1968 to 1971 and the crusty nurse on "Doc" in 1975-76.

Miss Wickes also handled classic characters with aplomb. She was the original Mary Poppins in a "Studio One" television production in the 1950s. Years later, she played a memorable Aunt Eller in the 1980 Broadway revival of "Oklahoma!" and held her own with Academy Award-winning actresses Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as the eccentric grandmother in the 1990 feature film "Postcards From the Edge."

Of her many films and the stars heading the casts, her personal favorites were Bette Davis, with whom she worked in "Now Voyager" in 1942; Bing Crosby, with whom she appeared in "White Christmas" in 1954; Doris Day, with whom she made several comedies, and Whoopi Goldberg, for whom she played the tough Sister Mary Lazarus in "Sister Act" in 1992 and "Sister Act II" in 1993.

Herself an Anglican, Miss Wickes frequently played Catholic nuns, not only for the two recent comedies but in such earlier films as "The Trouble With Angels" and "Where Angels Go Trouble Follows" three decades ago.

"It's amazing, when you are in the habit you get quieter as far as your gestures are concerned," the hyperkinetic trouper commented in 1992 on the nun roles. "You find yourself quite relaxed and reposed, which is new for me."

She also took her nursing roles seriously, working frequently as a volunteer nurse and board member of several medical institutions. Out of concern for patients, she once waged a campaign to install additional hangers in UCLA hospital room closets.

The lanky and indefatigable Miss Wickes taught comedy acting seminars at Washington University, the College of William and Mary and the American Conservatory Theater.

Never married, she has no surviving family.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church, 504 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills.

Miss Wickes had requested that any memorial donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills.

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