An Academy Award winner for "Johnny Belinda" (1948), Jane Wyman overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the most respected dramatic actresses of the late '40s and early '50s. She later received two Emmy nominations for her own television anthology series in the late Fifties, but went into semi-retirement until the early 1980s, when she was top-billed as the vicious matriarch Angela Channing in the popular primetime soap "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990), which earned her a Golden Globe. Wyman was also noted for her marriage to future U.S. President Ronald Reagan from 1940-48 and during their time together as husband and wife, they were one of the most popular couples in Hollywood, with young fans soaking up all the information on their seemingly happy marriage in all the major movie magazines of the day. To her credit, even after he ex-husband and father of two of her children became first a California governor and then the leader of the free world, she opted to not speak publicly about Reagan for her own personal reasons, taking any details of their long-ago love story to her grave.
The details of Wyman's birth were under contention for years; she developed an interest in a performing career at a young age, so she may have listed her birth date as Jan. 4, 1914 in order to be eligible for work. But state records from Missouri showed the actual birth date of Sarah Jane Mayfield as Jan. 5, 1917. Whatever the case, she was born in St. Joseph to Manning Jeffries Mayfield and Gladdys Hope Christian, who divorced in 1921. Her father died in 1927, causing her mother to relocate to Cleveland, OH to seek employment. Wyman was left in the care of the family's neighbors, Richard and Emma Fulks, whose surname she unofficially adopted. Richard Fulks was the chief of detectives in St. Joseph, and by all reports a remote and strict individual, so Wyman's upbringing was a largely joyless one.
She did, however, manage to develop an interest in singing and dancing after attending a local musical production, and convinced her stepmother to enroll her in dance lessons. Richard Fulks died in 1928, and Wyman relocated to Hollywood, CA with Emma Fulks, who had grown children from a previous marriage there. According to some sources, Wyman attempted to find work in show business while in the Tinseltown, but returned to Missouri without a contract or job offer in 1930. She did not remain there long; she dropped out of Lafayette High School in 1932 and returned to Hollywood, where she worked odd jobs while pursuing a singing and acting career under the stage name of Jane Durrell.
During this period, Wyman reportedly married salesman Ernest Eugene Wyman (or Weymann). Biographers noted that she may have taken her stage name from this marriage, but others suggested that Wyman was a derivation of her step-siblings' surname, Weymann, bestowed upon her by her agent, actor William Demarest ("My Three Sons," ABC/CBS, 1960-1972). She also went through another brief marriage in 1937, this time to salesman Myron Futterman. The union dissolved after three months due to Wyman's reluctance to have children; they were divorced in 1938.
A break came in the form of Leroy Prinz, a choreographer for feature films and the son of her dance teacher in Missouri. A natural brunette, she dyed her hair platinum blonde, which was the look of the day, a la Jean Harlow, and appeared as a chorus girl and bit player in countless musicals and comedies, including "Anything Goes" (1936) and the classic screwball comedy, "My Man Godfrey" (1936). That same year, she signed a $60-a-week contract with Warner Bros.; the studio put Wyman in a series of lightweight features which cast her as a flighty blonde - which was diametrically opposed to her intelligent off-screen persona. Eventually, she worked her way up to leading lady in the 1937 feature "Public Wedding," though the quality of her pictures continued to tread water in B-movie territory (i.e. 1941's "You're In the Army Now," which was notable solely for Wyman's record-making three-minute kiss with co-star Regis Toomey).
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons took note of Wyman's abilities and included her in a nine-week vaudeville tour that showcased up-and-coming Hollywood stars. Among her fellow performers on this junket was Ronald Reagan, with whom Wyman would appear in two films: the college comedy "Brother Rat" (1938) and its 1940 sequel, "Brother Rat and a Baby." The two would soon become an off-screen item as well, and were married in 1940 at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. A daughter, Maureen, was born in 1941, and the couple adopted a son, Michael in 1945. A second daughter, Christine, was born in 1947, but died prematurely. The couple split in 1948 - reportedly due to an affair between Wyman and her "Johnny Belinda" co-star Lew Ayers, as well as Reagan's campaign duties for Harry Truman, which later made Reagan the only divorced President in U.S. history up until his time in office. The other story making the rounds of why America's seemingly perfect union fell apart; Wyman's career began eclipsing that of her husbands. In fact when Wyman her Oscar for "Johnny Belinda," Reagan joked that he should have named the fictional Belinda as correspondent in his divorce.
Ironically, as she grew older in an unforgiving town - especially for women over a certain age - Wyman's fortunes changed in the mid-1940s with a string of solid roles in quality features, starting in 1945 with Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend," in which she played alcoholic Ray Milland's patient girlfriend. A year later, she received an Academy Award nomination as the downtrodden Ma Baxter, who is forced to shoot her son's beloved pet deer in "The Yearling" (1946). Two years later, Wyman would claim the Oscar for her own with "Johnny Belinda" (1948). She had seen the play on which the film was based while on tour with Louella Parsons' troupe in 1940, and persuaded her friend, producer Jerry Wald, to pitch a film version to her bosses at Warner Bros. Jack Warner needed little convincing to let Wyman play the plain deaf girl, Belinda, who is raped by the town bully (Stephen McNally), after Warner had seen her success as the unglamorous Ma Baxter. For the role, Wyman studied sign language and stuffed her own ears with wax. Her "method" efforts paid off with not only the Oscar and a Golden Globe, but bonafide star status. In a 1954 poll of box office stars, Wyman placed ninth in the Top Ten.
For the next decade or so, Wyman starred in a string of popular films for top directors, all of whom clamored to work with the now respected dramatic actress. Among her pictures from this period was "Stage Fright" (1950) for Alfred Hitchcock, "All That Heaven Allows" (1956) for Douglas Sirk, and film versions of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie (1950) and Edna Ferber's "So Big" (1953) for Robert Wise. Wyman also maintained her interest in musical comedy with roles in "Let's Do It Again" (1953) and Frank Capra's "Here Comes the Groom" (1951), for which she sung a duet with her teenage crush, Bing Crosby, on the Oscar-nominated tune "In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening." Wyman herself netted two Oscar nods for the dramas "The Blue Veil" (1951), for which she won the Golden Globe) and Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession" (1954). Wyman also married her third (and final) husband during this period, wedding composer Fred Karger in 1951. But like all others before - based no doubt on being raised sans loving parents - the couple divorced in 1955. They would remarry in 1961, but according to Karger, she left him in 1965.
Wyman was also a regular guest star on episodic television during this period, as well as hosting and producing her own anthology series, "Fireside Theater" (NBC, 1949-1963). Wyman was the last of three host-performers for the series, and she brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the proceedings - so much so that its producers retitled it "Jane Wyman Presents - as well as two Emmy nods in 1957 and 1959. Television would eventually become Wyman's primary showcase as the 1950s, like many older actresses formerly best known for their film work. Winding down into the '60s, she starred in two Disney productions, 1960's "Pollyanna" (as Aunt Polly) and "Bon Voyage" (1962) with Fred MacMurray. Her final movie appearance was the dreadful Bob Hope-Jackie Gleason comedy "How to Commit Marriage" (1969) - a sad cinematic send-off for a career chock-full of quality performances in classic films. Meanwhile, she continued to guest on television series and the occasional TV movie, including "The Failing of Raymond" (1971), in which she starred as a teacher targeted by an insane ex-student, until the mid 1970s, after which she essentially retired from acting and devoted much of her time to charity work for arthritis research and the Catholic Church.
In 1981, Wyman returned to network television as the scheming Angela Channing, ruthless head of a vineyard dynasty in the prime time soap "Falcon Crest." Wyman was reportedly encouraged to take the role to ward off the attention she was garnering in the wake of Ronald Reagan's appointment to the Presidency. For her work, she earned a Golden Globe in 1984 for her performance as well as numerous Soap Opera Digest Award nominations - not to mention, an impressive in those days $3 million per year salary - 10 times that of her ex-husband who was now President.. Her tenure on the show was marked by serious bouts of ill health; she underwent abdominal surgery in 1986, and a collapse on the set in 1989 revealed that she was suffering from diabetes. Doctors encouraged her to retire from acting, so she sat out much of the final season of "Falcon Crest" in 1988-89, save for a three-episode appearance at its conclusion (for which she also wrote a portion of the dialogue). Following "Falcon Crest," she returned to television only once more to portray Jane Seymour's mother on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" (CBS, 1993-98) in 1993.
Poor health kept her out of the spotlight during her remaining years, so she devoted much of her time to painting and charity work. Even when her ex-husband passed away in June of 2004 and all those close to him spoke out in his memory, she stayed quiet and away from the internationally televised funeral. In fact, she only appeared publicly at the funerals of her close friend, Loretta Young, in 2000, and daughter Maureen in 2001, who died tragically young of melanoma. Wyman herself succumbed to complications from arthritis and diabetes in September of 2007. She was fondly remembered by the old guard of Hollywood - most of whom she had outlived by decades - as well as by her son Michael, who had become a popular conservative radio talk show host.