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The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

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oscotto
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby oscotto » August 31st, 2013, 3:25 pm

Steve ... many thanks for your prompt, straightforward and fascinating answer. It's amazing how many actors recreate their past or choose to ignore it. Perhaps it goes with the profession. I found this to be true with Ann Harding, who was also bullheaded. She cut off her daughter, her grandchild, her sister, nephews and nieces, and even long-time friends.

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JackFavell
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby JackFavell » August 31st, 2013, 3:47 pm

Hi, Jack. Mary and Whoopi Goldberg were not friends. They probably respected each other's talent, but they had little in common, and Mary had difficulty with much of Whoopi's style of work, on and off camera. Whoopi did send a lovely floral arrangement to Mary's funeral.


Well, this is what I get for searching the internet for topic ideas to spark my mind for some questions. Obviously, I should have read your book! :oops: :oops:

You've identified two of Mary's great loves -- St. Louis and teaching.

Mary was born in 1910 and grew up in North St. Louis, around O'Fallon Park and Fairground Park. Her parents moved several times while Mary was a girl, but always in the same area, an industrious area of German and Irish immigrants and working class families. When the family moved in 1929 to the decidedly more upscale Ames Place so that Mary could walk to classes at Washington University, it was a grand step up -- so much so that Mary forever after spoke of this home as where she grew up. The home, at 6830 Pershing Ave., remains standing, and its owners graciously let me explore it in my research. Status was important to Mary: She distanced herself from the less prosperous and later racially troubled North St. Louis in all ways possible; it was as if she had been born in 1929, her last year in college. In Mary's many, many visits to her hometown, she never returned to North St. Louis and never spoke of it.


That's interesting. Do you think she was ashamed of her former homes? Or did she want to present herself as better off than she had started out? I myself live in a town that is very much more upscale than anywhere else I've lived before, and for a long time didn't feel like I fit. Is this part of an attempt by Mary to fit in, to be respected?

Thank you very much for going into detail about her residences and neighborhoods. My dad will be so happy to hear this, though he might already know about Ms. Wickes contributions to St. Louis.

She loved teaching. She was Washington University's first artist in residence, and returned several times to teach seminars. She also taught at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and at the College of San Mateo, Calif. She was quick to point out that she did not teach "comic acting" but "acting in comedy."



Thanks for talking about Mary's teaching. I really wish she could have had a leading role as a teacher. She would have been wonderful. A series would have been great... :D

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby moira finnie » August 31st, 2013, 3:51 pm

oscotto wrote:Steve ... many thanks for your prompt, straightforward and fascinating answer. It's amazing how many actors recreate their past or choose to ignore it. Perhaps it goes with the profession. I found this to be true with Ann Harding, who was also bullheaded. She cut off her daughter, her grandchild, her sister, nephews and nieces, and even long-time friends.


Maybe that tendency you describe comes from the urge to write their own scripts in life (and it is probably easier to be a public figure with less visible baggage). BTW, oscotto (quoted above) is Scott O'Brien, the author of several excellent bios of Kay Francis, Ann Harding and Ruth Chatterton. You can see our enlightening discussions with Scott under our Archived Guest Stars section of this board. You can also see another guest author, rollyson aka Carl Rollyson, who visited us earlier this year to discuss his recent bio of Dana Andrews in that area too. My thanks to both gentleman for their contributions and for their return visits--maybe we are doing some things right to bring you guys back again!

Steve--
This slightly ruthless aspect of Mary Wickes' life makes me wonder: Did Mary express any regrets about her choices? How stoic was she about her own emotions? Was she atypical for her generation or do you think that reticence was more common among people in the arts in her day as well as in general society?

How did she feel about new approaches to acting? I have often wondered how she coped with younger performers as she continued working. Were there any young actors with whom she formed a rapport?
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 4:01 pm

JackFavell wrote:
Do you think she was ashamed of her former homes? Or did she want to present herself as better off than she had started out?


Mary viewed everything through a lens of what was "proper" and what wasn't. I think she preferred people think she came from a life of privilege and that she grew up among people of social standing, rather than the much less humble beginnings of North St. Louis. When I found her birth home, it was on a street with many boarded-up homes that looked abandoned. This did not suit the version of her early life that wanted to promote, so she simply erased those years from her personal history and replaced them with a narrative that had her growing up in Ames Place, the much more monied part of town. Over time, and after being repeated in enough newspaper articles, this came to be accepted as fact.

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 4:22 pm

moirafinnie wrote:
oscotto wrote: BTW, oscotto (quoted above) is Scott O'Brien, the author of several excellent bios of Kay Francis, Ann Harding and Ruth Chatterton.


Ahhh, thanks for letting me know, Moira! Nice to be in touch, Scott.

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 4:34 pm

moirafinnie wrote: This slightly ruthless aspect of Mary Wickes' life makes me wonder: Did Mary express any regrets about her choices? How stoic was she about her own emotions? Was she atypical for her generation or do you think that reticence was more common among people in the arts in her day as well as in general society?


Mary certainly had regrets, but they mostly weren't related to her own choices. I interviewed almost 300 people and the strong consensus was that Mary rarely looked back. She was focused on the next job, next project, next opportunity, and almost never spoke of roles that she was passed over for. The one choice that several friends suspected she regretted was backing out of Mrs. Doubtfire, as mentioned above. This would have been partly because the film in the end was rather sweet, with very little to offend her puritan sensibilities, and partly because the film was such a smashing success. The actor Barnard Hughes felt Mary regretted having pushed too far for script control on their 1970s TV series Doc, from which Grant Tinker ultimately fired her for constantly objecting to dialogue she found offensive, even when spoken by other characters. It was the only time in her career that she was fired.

More often, her regrets were about those things that simply never came to pass. She resented not being cast as Ethel in "I Love Lucy," resented not being chosen for the film version of Poppins, resented that Hollywood overlooked so much of her stage success (she originated five Broadway roles for George S. Kaufman), and resented that in general she was never seen as a greater star, despite toiling as a "journey-woman" actress for six decades.

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Rita Hayworth » August 31st, 2013, 4:37 pm

Question about the Movie Cimarron (1960) Movie

She played Mrs. Neal Hefner - wife of a Judge who played by Edgar Buchanan - and its one of my enduring Western starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell - supported by Anne Baxter and Arthur O'Connell and others. My question is this why in the world the Producers of this Movie fired Director Anthony Mann at nearing the end of filming and replaced by Charles Walters?

How the Cast reacts to that and this is one of the most bizarre things that I heard about this movie and I was wondering about that myself. How did Mary react to that?

Working with Abbott and Costello

What movie that she claimed to be her favorite? ... She did quite of few of them - If I recall correctly!

Thanks Mr. Taravella!

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JackFavell
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby JackFavell » August 31st, 2013, 4:41 pm

Mr. Taravella,

How did Mary like New York? She sounds like a bit of a homebody, so when she was on Broadway, it seems like it might have been difficult for her. Did she like the hustle and bustle? or was she frustrated that things weren't 'proper'?

George S. Kaufman cast her five times. Did they have any kind of friendship, or was it simply that Kaufman recognized a great, funny actress when he saw one?

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 4:47 pm

moirafinnie wrote: How did she feel about new approaches to acting? I have often wondered how she coped with younger performers as she continued working. Were there any young actors with whom she formed a rapport?


Good question! Mary took the nature of acting very seriously. To her, it was a craft to be learned and honed and respected. She had little patience for performers who weren't ready to work hard on a production, which sometimes surfaced in touring stage shows with younger performers who saw the company as simply a springboard to something greater. Forgive me if I insert a passage directly from the book here, but the director Jack O'Brien, one of the most articulate people I've ever interviewed, just says it so well:

“She was a self-styled repository of a certain kind of humor and
a style of comedic acting. She felt she had something to give a company
like [ACT]. She wanted that clean, acerbic, almost mechanized style of
comedy that George S. Kaufman did so brilliantly. She wanted it sustained
and honored, and she was eager to be a communicator of it. She
was so quintessential, so true to herself. She knew her gifts, she knew
her timing. She worshipped—literally worshipped—George S. Kaufman.
When he said, ‘Turn, count three and say it,’ she turned, counted three
and said it. Her skill and technique confirmed by it, but not from an intellectual
point of view. She was an intuitive actress,” O’Brien says. “She
didn’t leave anything to chance. She wanted everything very clearly
worked out for her. She was just a consummate, kind of tunnel-vision
professional. She was used to being in an ensemble and used to doing
what she was told. And she was not wildly secure: She worried a lot
when she rehearsed—she wanted to make absolutely certain that that
would be there and she would be standing over here, not over there. They
were not unreasonable requests, but they were very specific. She was
not a breezy person and she wasn’t a ray of sunlight in those rehearsals.
She worried, she ferreted, she rumbled a lot."

In general, Mary had very little interest in young people. It's no coincidence that Mary probably played the greatest number of childless women in performing arts history -- casting directors saw very little maternal instinct in Mary, and they were usually right. One exception was Johnny Whitaker, the child star of Family Affair with Brian Keith. Mary befriended him while they worked together on the Saturday morning show, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and took him under her wing. He was enormously grateful -- and admiring -- and she even attended his wedding some years later.

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 4:59 pm

JackFavell wrote: George S. Kaufman cast her five times. Did they have any kind of friendship, or was it simply that Kaufman recognized a great, funny actress when he saw one?


Oh, no, they had a genuine friendship. It began in a professional setting, when she was hired for Stage Door (which Kaufman wrote with Edna Ferber), but when it became clear that she could match him in clever one-liners, they hit it off immediately. Over the years, she saved 55 pieces of correspondence from him, dating from 1941 to 1961, the year he died. She was a lifelong friend of his daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider, whose insights really helped me better understand Mary.

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 5:18 pm

JackFavell wrote: How did Mary like New York? She sounds like a bit of a homebody, so when she was on Broadway, it seems like it might have been difficult for her. Did she like the hustle and bustle? or was she frustrated that things weren't 'proper'?


At first, she was no doubt more at home with the pace and rhythm and habits of St. Louis. But she quickly realized that there was much more opportunity and acceptance in Manhattan for a tall, loud woman with unconventional features and a strong personality. Her years in New York (essentially 1935 to 1951) and later in Los Angeles enabled her to have the kind of career she would never have enjoyed had she stayed in St. Louis.

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 5:24 pm

Rita Hayworth wrote: Working with Abbott and Costello -- What movie that she claimed to be her favorite? ... She did quite of few of them - If I recall correctly!


Hi. Mary appeared with Abbott and Costello only once, but in a film that holds up very well today. In Who Done It? Mary plays the sarcastic secretary of a radio executive who is killed; A&C are the amateur mystery writers who get caught up in the murder mystery.

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby mongoII » August 31st, 2013, 5:27 pm

Hi,
Considering Mary was in both the play and movie of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" how did she cope with the irascible Monty Woolley?
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Jeff » August 31st, 2013, 5:54 pm

Steve, thanks for those details about Mary's favorite roles and her friendships with Lucille Ball and Vincent Price and their families.

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » August 31st, 2013, 6:55 pm

Steve_Taravella wrote:
Sue Sue Applegate wrote: who was Mary Wickes' agent? Did she have a long, fruitful relationship with someone professionally as a representative?


Interesting question. Mary had many, many agents over the years, including some of the best known in the business, like (early in her career) Lew Wasserman and Edie Van Cleve of MCA, the Louis Schurr Agency and Bill Leibling of Liebling Wood. But Mary never trusted agents to advocate properly for her, felt she knew best how to promote herself, so she dismissed agents regularly; her agents in the last years of her life are too numerous to mention. She suffered for this -- had she been able to trust an agent to represent her in contractual negotiations, she surely would have made more money than she did.


Thanks, Steve. You mentioned earlier about a correspondence with Thelma Ritter, and I was wondering if there was any topic they would revisit from time to time. Since Ritter more or less had her husband, Joseph Moran, functioning as her manager/agent, would they often chat about the business or was it more personal tone to their letters?
Again, thank you for your visit, and your lovely, insightful responses.
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