Above all else, singer/actress Peggy Wood has endeared herself to both TV and film audiences with one single role in each medium. She made warm, lasting impressions as the benevolent, strong-willed Scandinanvian matriarch Marta Hansen in the series drama Mama (1949), and as the knowing Mother Abbess who gently but firmly steers Julie Andrews’ novice away from the nunnery and into the arms of love and a certain Austrian captain with her stirring rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” in, what is arguably considered the most popular musical film ever made, The Sound of Music (1965). But Peggy was so much more than those two undeniable treasures. Encompassing a stage career that lasted six decades, Peggy was unequivocally one of the grand dames of Broadway and London theatre, heightened by the fact that writer Noël Coward wrote some of his strongest pieces with her in mind.
Brooklyn-born Peggy was christened Margaret Wood on February 9, 1892, the daughter of a popular newspaperman and humorist. The lovely blonde soprano began taking singing lessons at age 8 and made her debut as a teenager in the chorus of “Naughty Marietta” (1910). Within a year, she took her first her Broadway bow in “The Three Romeos” (1911) and grew in status after drawing strong applause for her lead ingenue debut in “Maytime” in 1917 while introducing the song “Will You Remember?” The blossoming performer went on to excel prominently in musicals/operettas, including “Buddies” (1919), “Marjolaine” (1922), and “The Clinging Vine” (1922), before making equally respectable ventures into witty comedy (the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” (1925) and “A Lady in Love” (1927)) and Shakespeare (Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” (1928)).
A quiet beauty who projected little sex appeal, she was naturally not a strong contender for Hollywood stardom but made her feature film debut anyway in the silent movie Almost a Husband (1919) opposite humorist Will Rogers. She never made another silent picture. Along with her first husband, poet, and literary editor John V.A. Weaver, she was a member of the New York “intellectual” circuit and the well-chronicled Algonquin (restaurant) Round Table. Noël Coward wrote Peggy’s “Bitter Sweet” role specifically for her. She originated the part in London’s West End in 1929 and introduced the song “I’ll See You Again.” While in London, she also appeared in Jerome Kern’s “The Cat and the Fiddle” (1932) with Francis Lederer, wherein she sang the popular “Try to Forget,” and complemented Coward once again in the musical “Operette” (1938) with her renditions of “Where Are the Songs We Sung” and “Dearest Love.” In 1941, Peggy again inspired Coward, this time playing the role of second wife Ruth Condomine in the New York premiere of “Blithe Spirit” with Clifton Webb, and then took the show to the Piccadilly Theatre in London. During World War II, she also lent her singing talent patriotically with several USO tours.
She returned to films in mid-career and co-starred without much fanfare in Handy Andy (1934) playing Will Rogers’ nagging wife, The Right to Live (1935), Jalna (1935) and Call It a Day (1937). Following her supporting work in The Bride Wore Boots (1946), Magnificent Doll (1946) and Dream Girl (1948), she was ignored in films until handed the roles of Naomi in the biblical drama The Story of Ruth (1960) and her Oscar-nominated Mother Abbess.
A master dialectician who handled many ethnic roles during her long career, she became one of early TV’s critically-acclaimed “Golden Age” stars with the Norwegian family drama Mama (1949) and was Emmy-nominated twice for her efforts. She also continued on the 50s and 60s stage with roles in “Charley’s Aunt”, “The Girls in 508” with Imogene Coca, “The Rape of the Belt”, “Pictures in the Hallway” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot”, which would be one of her last stage shows in 1970. From 1959 to 1966, she served as President of ANTA (American National Theatre and Academy).
Peggy married and was widowed twice. Her first husband died of tuberculosis at age 44 and her second, William Walling, an executive in the printing business, died in 1973 after 32 years. Peggy herself, at age 86, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Stanford, Connecticut, on March 18, 1978, and was survived by her son, David Weaver, who once assistant stage managed one of her Broadway plays “The Happiest Years”.
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