Today we honor and celebrate one of the most prolific character actors of the 20th Century. Born on this date in 1910, Mary Isabella Wickenhauser hailed from St. Louis. This society debutante had wealthy origins that belied the salty, working-class roles she cherished. Her abrupt, tell-it-like-it-is demeanor made her a consistent audience favorite on every medium for over six decades. She was particularly adroit in film parts that chided the super rich or exceptionally pious.
She originally intended a career in law, graduating from Washington University with a degree in political science. She participated in summer stock on the advice of a professor and fell in love with the theatre. She promptly moved to New York where she landed walk-on and understudy parts. Her first major role was as Margaret Hamilton’s understudy in The Wizard of Oz, for which she received unusually good reviews given she was not the lead.
After nearly a decade on stage, Hollywood came calling. Wickes reprised her role in The Man Who Came to Dinner for Warner Brothers and was fortunate enough to act opposite Bette Davis. The film was a smash and the hits kept coming. As a character actor, Wickes was not as restrained by the studio system and was allowed to freelance extensively. This gave her a chance to develop her chops and to work with a much broader range of talent than most of her contemporaries. She also served as the live-action model for Cruella DeVil in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. She also took on a number of television roles, again being a highly demanded guest. She had regular, critically recognized roles on the Gertrude Berg Show and Dennis the Menace.
A face everyone knew but couldn’t quite put a name to, she lived a quiet personal life. Her longtime partner, Abby Carson, was a playwright. They shared an apartment in New York for decades. She supported a number of social causes without fanfare and on her death in 1995 set up a $2 million bequest in her parent’s names to establish a library to capture the more obscure history of film and television.
I loved her in Postcards From the Edge (she was SO edgy), but for me, Mary Wickes will always be Sister Mary Lazarus in the Sister Act movies. It perfectly captures her unexpected wit and sensibility.