Mary Stuart, the stalwart star throughout the 35-year run of the popular soap opera built around her character, "Search for Tomorrow," has died. She was 75.
Stuart, who began as Joanne "Jo" Gardner Barron and ended the show as Joanne Gardner Barron Tate Vincente Tourneur, died Thursday at her New York City home of complications from a stroke.
Inducted into the Soap Opera Hall of Fame in 1995, Stuart also played the character Meta Bauer on another durable soap opera, "Guiding Light," from 1996 until her death.
Born Mary Stuart Houchins on the 4th of July in Miami, and reared in Tulsa, Okla., the future actress briefly attended the University of Tulsa and worked for three weeks as a cub reporter on the Tulsa Tribune. She was bounced, she later explained, because of a "chronic feud between myself and spelling authorities."
But she also gravitated early to acting, working with the Tulsa Little Theater, a USO group and even singing with Count Basie's orchestra when it came through town. In her late teens, she hitchhiked to New York, where she became a photographer's model and a nightclub photographer at the Roosevelt Grill. "Do you sing?" a quiet man asked one night.
Yes, she told producer Joseph Pasternak, who quickly gave her a screen test and then an MGM contract.
Stuart had bit parts as a cigarette girl, hatcheck girl and ingenue in nearly two dozen motion pictures during her brief Hollywood tenure in the 1940s, including "Adventures of Don Juan" with Errol Flynn and "The Girl From Jones Beach" with Ronald Reagan.
And, yes, she could sing, later recording two albums, "Mary Stuart" and "Joanne Sings."
But her true career began Sept. 3, 1951, when the daytime drama "Search for Tomorrow" hit the airwaves on CBS. At the time the show ended on NBC on Dec. 26, 1986, it was the longest-running soap opera on television.
And as Joanne, the character around whose life in Henderson, U.S.A., the series was built, Stuart was the only cast member to last the entire run. (A close second was co-star Larry Haines as Stu Bergman, who joined two months after the show began and remained through the final episode.)
"We're not just a show, you know," Stuart told a reporter in 1982. "We're part of history. The last 30 years happen to have been pretty tumultuous times--not only for the country, but especially for women, and all of that is the history of our program."
(In real life, the actress was always liberated--even in her early Hollywood days. In the 1940s, when contract ingenues were supposed to be little more than pretty, she wore jeans and boots, drove a truck instead of a sedan, smoked cigars, read books and had a Laurel Canyon house filled with 16 animals, including dogs, cats and opossums.)
Soap operas, she told The Times in 1978 during a visit to Los Angeles from her show's home base in New York, help provide continuity in an ever-changing world.
"They are a continuing conversation," she said. "People imagine themselves in the same situation and say, 'If I was faced with that, how would I handle it? How would I play it out?' For them, it is a release. Good company."
Stuart's character, Joanne, evolved right along with real-life women as they moved into the workplace and became more assertive. Initially, Joanne ran a rooming house, cooking and making beds for her boarders. She wore dresses a size too large, aprons and her hair in a bun. As she aged, she became more glamorous and accomplished, working as a librarian, personnel director, owner and operator of her own inn and a city councilwoman. She learned to play the guitar and often sang and played to entertain friends and guests.
Stuart's Joanne also gave viewers a role model for coping with many of life's problems--and certainly tallied more than any ordinary woman. She was the first to have her actual pregnancy written into the script and was filmed in the hospital after giving birth to her son in 1956--only to have the television baby die soon after in an accident.
Her character was widowed three times and kidnapped three times. Only her intervention stopped a third triple tragedy, when she told a new writer in 1977 who described his plans for her character: "The mastectomy will fascinate my viewers, because it will be my third."
"Search for Tomorrow" was extremely popular for its first quarter-century, but lost ratings afterward until it was canceled by CBS in 1982 and then by NBC after a disastrous four more years.
Among the actors who got their start on the show were Barbara Babcock, Kevin Bacon, Jill Clayburgh, Sandy Duncan, Morgan Fairchild, Kevin Kline, Hal Linden, Don Knotts and Susan Sarandon.
Asked in the final episode what she was searching for, Stuart's undaunted Joanne offered a hopeful "Tomorrow."
Stuart was the first actress to be nominated for a daytime Emmy in 1962, and later added three more nominations. In 1983, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her work on "Search for Tomorrow."
In 1992, Stuart started the New York chapter of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation program Book PALS (Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools), frequently reading to school classes herself. She also started a reading club in six New York schools.
Divorced twice, Stuart is survived by her husband of more than 20 years, Wolfgang Neumann; two children, Cynthia Stuart and Jeffrey Krolik; and two grandchildren.
Memorial donations can be made to NYBookPALS, 5757 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.