From the grand old school of wisecracking, loud and lanky Mary Wickes had few peers while forging a career as a salty scene-stealer. 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, and was a major chastiser in generation-gap comedies. TV holds a vault full of not-to-be-missed vignettes where she served as a brusque foil to many a top TV comic star. Case in point: who could possibly forget her merciless ballet taskmaster, Madame Lamond, putting Lucille Ball through her rigorous paces at the ballet bar in a classic I Love Lucy (1951) episode?
Unlike the working-class characters she embraced, this veteran character comedienne was actually born Mary Isabelle Wickenhauser on June 13, 1910, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a well-to-do banker. Of Irish and German heritage, she grew into a society débutante following high school and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in political science. She forsook a law career, however, after being encouraged by a college professor to try theater, and she made her debut doing summer stock in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The rest, as they say, is history.
Prodded on by the encouragement of stage legend Ina Claire whom she met doing summer theater, she transported herself to New York where she quickly earned a walk-on part in the Broadway play “The Farmer Takes a Wife” starring Henry Fonda in 1934. In the show she also understudied The Wizard of Oz (1939)’s “Wicked Witch” Margaret Hamilton, and earned excellent reviews when she went on in the part. Plain and hawkish in looks while noticeably tall and gawky in build, Wickes was certainly smart enough to see that comedy would become her career path and she enjoyed showing off in roles playing much older than she was. New York stage work continued to pour in, and she garnered roles in “Spring Dance” (1936), “Stage Door” (1936), “Hitch Your Wagon” (1937), “Father Malachy’s Miracle (1937) and, in an unusual bit of casting, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of “Danton’s Death”. All the while she kept fine-tuning her acting craft in summer stock.
A series of critically panned plays followed until a huge door opened for her in the form of Miss Preen, the beleaguered nurse to an acid-tongued, wheelchair-bound radio star (played by the hilarious Monty Woolley) in the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner”; for once, it was Wickes doing the cowering. The play was the toast of Broadway for two wacky years and she went on tour with it as well. She also become a Kaufman favorite.
Hollywood took notice as well, and when Warner Bros. decided to film the play, it allowed both Wickes and Woolley to recreate their classic roles. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), which co-starred Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan, was a grand film hit and Wickes was now officially on board in Hollywood, given plenty of chances to freelance. At Warners she lightened up the proceedings a bit in the Bette Davis tearjerker Now, Voyager (1942) as the nurse to Gladys Cooper. Elsewhere, she traded quips with Lou Costello as a murder suspect in the amusing whodunit Who Done It? (1942); played a WAC in Private Buckaroo (1942) with The Andrews Sisters; and dished out her patented smart-alecky services in both Happy Land (1943) and My Kingdom for a Cook (1943).
Wickes returned to Broadway for a few seasons, often for Kaufman, and did some radio work as well, but returned to Hollywood and played yet another nurse in The Decision of Christopher Blake (1948), a part written especially for her. She appeared with Bette Davis for a third time in June Bride (1948), finding some fine moments playing a magazine editor. Wickes went on to perform yeoman work in On Moonlight Bay (1951) and its sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953); I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951); White Christmas (1954) and The Music Man (1962), the last as one of the “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little” gossiping housewives of River City.
Television roles also began filtering in for Wickes she continued to put her cryptic comedy spin on her harried housekeepers, teachers, servants and other working commoner types. She played second banana to a queue of comedy’s best known legends in the 1950s and 1960s, notably Lucille Ball (who was a long-time neighbor and pal off-screen), Danny Thomas, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Peter Lind Hayes and Gertrude Berg. Her stellar work with Berg on The Gertrude Berg Show (1961) garnered Wickes an Emmy nomination. Among the Baby Boom generation, she may be best remembered as Miss Cathcart in Dennis the Menace (1959).
In later years her gangly figure filled out a bit as she continued to appear here and there on the small screen in both guest star and series’ regular parts. Later in life she enjoyed a bit of a resurgence. Recalled earlier for her Sister Clarissa in the madcap comedy films The Trouble with Angels (1966) and its sequel, Where Angels Go Trouble Follows! (1968), both with Rosalind Russell, She donned the habit again decades later as crabby musical director Sister Mary Lazarus in the box-office smash Sister Act (1992) and its sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). She appeared in Postcards from the Edge (1990) as Meryl Streep’s grandmother, and in Little Women (1994) as the matriarchal Aunt March. True to form, the last role in which she appeared was voicing the gargoyle “Laverne” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), which was released after her death.
The never-married Wickes died in 1995 after entering the hospital with respiratory problems. She suffered a broken hip from an accidental fall and complications quickly set in following surgery. She was 85 years young.
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