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Jane Wyman, 90; Oscar winner, first wife of Reagan

September 11, 2007|Claudia Luther | Special to The Times

Jane Wyman, the Academy Award-winning actress whose long and distinguished film and television career was nearly overshadowed by her real-life role as the first wife of actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, died Monday. She was 90.

Wyman, who had been in failing health for several years, died at her home in Rancho Mirage, said Michael Mesnick, her longtime business manager.

Wyman's son, radio personality Michael Reagan, said in a statement: "I have lost a loving mother; my children, Cameron and Ashley, have lost a loving grandmother; my wife, Colleen, has lost a loving friend she called Mom; and Hollywood has lost the classiest lady to ever grace the silver screen."

Veteran Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, who first met Wyman in the late 1930s through his friendship with Reagan, told The Times that Wyman "was not only a fine actress but a darling, dear lady."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Wyman obituary: The obituary of actress Jane Wyman in Tuesday's California section stated that she was born Sarah Jane Mayfield Fulks. According to a biography approved by her family and posted on a tribute website, she was born Sarah Jane Mayfield and "assumed the name Sarah Jane Fulks in honor of her neighbors, Richard and Emma Fulks, who unofficially adopted her after her father died."

"I think she was an inspiration to all young actresses because she started as a minor actress and worked her way through the ranks to become not only one of Hollywood's prominent leading ladies but an Academy Award winner," he said.

After arriving in Hollywood from St. Louis in the mid-1930s, Wyman learned her craft as a contract player before getting a chance at the major roles that would secure her reputation as a star. She won her Oscar playing a deaf-mute rape victim in 1948's "Johnny Belinda" and was nominated for her performances in "The Yearling" (1946), "The Blue Veil" (1951) and "Magnificent Obsession" (1954).

In the 1950s, the early days of television, she staked out a career in that medium with her own half-hour dramatic anthology show. And years after her film career waned, she became familiar to millions more television viewers as the matriarch-you-love-to-hate in the long-running 1980s nighttime soap opera "Falcon Crest."

Still, hardly ever was Wyman's name mentioned in print without also referring to the second of her three husbands.

At the time they met in 1938, Reagan was an actor under contract with Warner Bros. After a well-publicized courtship, they wed Jan. 26, 1940, at Wee Kirk O' the Heather Church at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

The couple had two daughters, one of whom died after a premature birth. The other, Maureen Reagan, died of melanoma in 2001 at age 60. They also adopted a son, Michael, before divorcing in 1948.

Theirs would have been just another Hollywood marriage that landed on the rocks had Reagan not gone on to become governor of California and the 40th president of the United States.

Reagan, who was by then married to Nancy Davis and had two more children, was the first American president to have been divorced. Wyman had the dubious honor of being the first ex-wife of an American president.

Much to Wyman's irritation, she was the subject of constant questioning about Reagan, despite her well-known refusal to speak of him because she considered it "bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives." She was known to get up and leave an interview if a writer brought up his name.

"I made 86 films and 350 television shows," she told Newsday in 1989. "I've been in this business 54 years."

Rarely did she break her silence about her former husband, with the exception of a brief statement issued after his death on June 5, 2004: "America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man."

She met Reagan when she played his girlfriend in "Brother Rat" in 1938 and appeared with him in the 1940 sequel, "Brother Rat and a Baby," and two other films, "Tugboat Annie Sails Again" and "An Angel From Texas" (both 1940). They had uncredited bit parts playing themselves in "It's a Great Feeling," which was released after their separation.

During divorce proceedings, Wyman -- who under the laws then in place was obligated to give cause for their separation -- said she didn't share Reagan's interest in politics and was bored by the constant talk about it. The divorce came at a time when her career was soaring and his was declining. She also had been linked with "Johnny Belinda" co-star Lew Ayres, and it is unclear whether Reagan was referring to the film or to Ayres when he wryly commented at the time, "I think I'll name 'Johnny Belinda' as co-respondent.' "

Reagan's 1990 autobiography, "An American Life," mentions his marriage to Wyman only to say that it had produced "two wonderful children" but that it "didn't work out."

With her brown eyes, turned-up nose and signature dark hairdo -- a pageboy with bangs -- Wyman was a familiar face to millions of fans and a prominent member of Old Hollywood. Her co-stars ranged from Gregory Peck in "The Yearling" to the young Rock Hudson, whose first starring role was opposite Wyman in "Magnificent Obsession." She also starred with Hudson in "All That Heaven Allows," which was the inspiration for writer-director Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" in 2002.

In the lighthearted 1951 film "Here Comes the Groom," Wyman and co-star Bing Crosby sang a duet of the Oscar-winning song "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening."

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