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
"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:
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'."
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
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
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