TVGuide: "Jane Wyman of Falcon Crest"

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TV Guide
May 22-28, 1982
Jane Wyman of Falcon Crest
By Tom Nolan

The air is sweet and still within the grounds of the Hotel Bel-Air, a lush and placid oasis from a tranquil past nestled in a canyon just north of Sunset Boulevard; and the woman dressed in lilac at a table in the hotel's dining room evokes the feel of an earlier and perhaps more interesting era. Her voice is soothing, musical, amused, with just a trace of regional drawl. She augments her delivery with subtle turns of the head, an occasional touch to the listener's arm.

"When I first got into TV," she is saying, "it really was in its embryonic stage. Loretta [Young] and I both started our series at about the same time. And the pace! I had no idea you began work at 6 in the morning and quit at 10 at night, and that after shooting you went to your office to get the next scripts started – and it goes on and on and on. I'd limp home over that lousy Coldwater Canyon and I'd say, ‘Well, Lord, if you want me there tomorrow, you goin' have to git me there!' Of course it becomes second nature, but after four years I said: That does it, and if anybody pointed a Brownie at me I was in Chicago! You know? I thought: Never again."

The lady in lilac is Jane Wyman, and the TV series she speaks of was The Jane Wyman Theatre, a half-hour anthology the actress produced, was hostess and usually star of in the 1950s. This foray into the infant medium more or less capped a distinguished movie career of some 20 years that saw a coltish Warner Bros. contract player, once billed as "the Hey Hey Girl of the screen," become one of Hollywood's most respected artists ad popular stars in such films as "Miracle in the Rain," "Magnificent Obsession" and "Johnny Belinda," for which she won an Academy Award in 1948. After her Theatre went off the air, Jane Wyman became an increasingly infrequent presence on either screen, keeping occupied instead with private pursuits like painting and charitable work (notably a multi-year association with the Arthritis Foundation) and pointedly ignoring the option pursued by other female stars of her generation to lengthen or revive a career with appearances in a seamy witch's cauldron of horror flicks. "I wasn't unreceptive to working," she now says of those years away from acting. "It was just that nothing came around that I was even remotely interested in doing. Number two, I don't think they were exactly looking for me with a fine-toothed comb."

She had married and divorced three husbands, the second of them a fellow Warner Bros. Player named Ronald Reagan. That 1940 union lasted eight years and produced two children, Michael and Maureen, before Jane claimed that politics had stolen her mate's attentions entirely. It wasn't so much that their views were opposed, she told the divorce court, but that she was unable to share his all-consuming interest in them. (Now daughter Maureen, 41, has tossed her chapeau into the political ring in a bid to win the nomination as California's Republican candidate to the United States Senate.)

And, at 68, Jane Wyman herself is back in the public eye as star of a second TV series, CBS's Falcon Crest, a modern-day saga of the California wine country created and produced by The Waltons', Earl Hamner. Hamner says the Oscar winner was an ideal choice to play Angie Channing, the single-minded matriarch bent on working her will upon all surrounding people and geography. "We wanted a star of Jane's stature," he says, "and certainly she comes from a legendary time in filmmaking. Also, for all of her power and seeming ruthlessness, the audience must like Angie – and who could not like Jane Wyman?

Apparently his star has proved not at all reticent to bring her years of experience to bear upon the show's shaping. "I'm not a stranger to this business," she points out, "and you know, it takes a team to do one of these things. I don't really want to get involved in all that production junk, but creatively I think we all have to get involved."

"You know exactly where you stand with her," says Hamner. "She tells you what she knows and how she feels about things. It's been an honest relationship from the very beginning. I suspect her input will always be affirmative and useful, and I certainly plan to listen to it." During filming of the Falcon Crest pilot (called "The Vintage Years" and later scrapped), his leading lady was quick to point out inconsistencies in the script, he says, adding with a chuckle, "She was also able to straighten out some rather, uh, murky dialogue." Jane describes herself viewing a screening of the untelevised pilot: "I know what was wrong the minute it came on the screen, and I'd say, ‘That's out.' I said, ‘if she fingers that watch around her neck one more time I'm going to scream. And that gray wig has got to go'." (It did.)

She's personally supervised the selection of Angie's wardrobe. "I found a little wholesale hosue that makes the most charming and aristocratic suits, very ‘new' looking, very tailored but very lovely and feminine." And she speaks with obvious enthusiasm of the creative processes involved in getting inside Angie – the observation and pigeonholing of traits, the squirreling away of bits of costume and business to be brought out at just the right moment – all tricks of craft that call to mind the elaborate preparations made for her celebrated movie portrayals.

But is such dedication wasted on a medium she once described as "ticker-tape entertainment," where the summit of attained artistic achievement for at least some of her supporting players is a soft-drink commercial?

"Oh, it's still ticker tape," she says dryly. "Of course everything's changed now. I think it's possible to do some really good things. And the young people have been wonderful; they know their lines, they're on time, they don't fuss around too much. I just wish they were a little more seasoned. Poor little things, they haven't had a chance at that marvelous background we got at Warners or Metro when we were young. But they'll ask, ‘What do you think about the scene?' and you give them tiny, skippy little hints."

Jane Wyman fixes her listener with an ironic gaze that seems well earned. "I tell them right off," she says: "‘Honey, if I can't see your eyes sparkle, you're dead'."

Several weeks later, far from the civilized tranquility of the Hotel Bel-Air, a heavy mist hangs over the rolling green fields of Stag's Leap vineyard in the Napa Valley, where the Falcon Crest company is perched for two weeks of location shooting. During a break between scenes, two junior members of the cast discuss what it's like working with a movie legend.

Some indication of the gap in experience contained within the show's troupe comes in learning that Lorenzo Lamas, who plays Angie's grandson Lance, was born on a January day 24 years ago when his father Fernando was costarring with Wyman in an episode of her previous TV series. "The first time we got together," Lorenzo recalls, "Jane came up to me and said, ‘I'm so glad we've finally met, because the last I heard anything about you was when your father went shouting off the set and we had to wait two hours to get the next shot!'"

Twenty-three-year-old Billy R. Moses, the "fair prince" nephew in Angie Channing's schemes, describes playing opposite the leading lady as "an education." "She's a movie star, and that comes off in everything she does. Just being around her is fun." There are times, Moses concedes, when the fun takes a little finding. "Jane, you know," he says with a wry laugh, "if she doesn't like what you're doin', she'll tell ya right away. For instance, I rehearsed a scene with her the other night and it was like... she directed me through the whole rehearsal." Skippy little hints. "And that's a little disconcerting at first – you don't often have the other actor directing you – but you relax and you roll with the punches and you learn. You gotta be smart enough to at least listen, because, uh – if you don't, you're a fool."

The mist has become a light drizzle by late afternoon when Jane Wyman makes her appearance on the set. Wearing a smart green-plaid jacket and skirt, black boots and a pink organdy scarf tied in a big bow, she steps sure-footedly toward the setup, holding a dark umbrella and radiating cheerfulness. In some intangible fashion the crew becomes more alive, and a rustle of little activities starts up at her presence. A Newsweek photographer who's driven from San Francisco through the gloomy weather hustles to position himself for a quick snap needed back in the office by nightfall. The director, Jack Bender, strolls over to greet her. Others scurry to make her comfortable, and Wyman's finely honed concentration remains unflagging as she gives a quick smile and wave to the cameraman, allows someone to hold her umbrella, and listens to Bender describe the logistics of the imminent scene.

Parked at the foot of a sharply angled driveway is the Mercedes 380S Angie will pilot up to the door of a Chicano couple's home. The director asks Wyman if she thinks she'll be able to hit the drive-up mark, and getting in, she replies, "Well, honey, I'll sure try!" The hour is late, what light there is is fast fleeting, and the assistant director tries to speed things along by shouting to the young grip who's toweling drops from the Mercedes' windshield, "C'mon, let that go, it's only a rehearsal, guys!" The grip looks back sharply over his shoulder. "Well, look," he snaps with all the protective testiness of a smitten swain, "with the rain and the lights, she's having trouble seeing. Let me get this defroster going, OK?"Director Bender cocks an amused eyebrow, emits a sardonic oath, and, pacing the sidelines, he's heard to mutter with a chuckle, "I wonder if it was like this on ‘Johnny Belinda'."

The star sits there, blissfully uninvolved in the little tiff, but when all is ready for the rehearsal she suggests instead, "Let's shoot one and see if I hit it." "OK," agrees a pleasantly surprised director. The camera rolls, the Mercedes turns up the grade and into the drive, and glides to its mark with the accuracy of a plumb line. Cut and print.

Spurning a stand-in, Jane Wyman opts to stay seated inside the auto while the next setup is lit. ("Hone, I might as well.") She goes over dialogue with the other players, raising a finger firmly when someone injects a line out of turn but continuing her speech without losing a syllable, remaining in character all the while. Once the camera rolls, she breezes through the scene, in which Angie dangles before the couple their son's probably receipt of "the Channing Scholarship" more or less in exchange for their dropping assault charges against that rascal Lance.

"Print that one," says Jack Bender, and a delighted Wyman coos, "Oh, trés magnifique!" Getting out of the car, she exclaims, "That ol'... biddy! She's somethin', isn't she? She really is! Such an old biddy!"

The Newsweek photographer is instantly upon her. "OK," she asks him, "where do you want and what do you want? In front of my... car? Which car is this? I've so many I've forgotten. I give Maseratis away, did you know that?" Lorenzo Lamas joins her, and the photographer shoots away at the two of them beneath an umbrella. "Aren't we beautiful?" she asks. "I think we're just gorgeous, just the two most gorgeous creatures –" She continues to jive like this, slipping in and out of Angie, striking this pose and that, keeping the patter going to give some spark to the click of the shutter, but when she's had enough she's had enough. "Make way for the camera," commands one of the crew setting up the next shot, and Jane Wyman, hopping aside, says, "Gotta make way for the camera," and then keeps strolling, away from Newsweek's lens

 

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