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Family Theater at 50: continued
Father Patrick Peyton Remembered

Jane Wyatt: Witness to Family Values

 Peyton Was Mesmerizing

 Father Knows Best

 Mother of Mr. Spock

Mother Converted

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Hollywood actress Jane Wyatt has given time to Father Peyton’s family ministry almost from the beginning. Between 1947 and 1954 she starred in eight of his radio dramas that encouraged family unity and prayer. She also appeared in several of his television projects, serving, more recently, as hostess in A Most Unusual Man, a 1993 film commemorating Father Peyton.

Actress Jane Wyatt sits in a shady nook outside her Bel Air home.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Earlier this year, Jane Wyatt was present at Family Theater’s 50th-anniversary banquet on March 1 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There she received special recognition from Father John Phalen, C.S.C., the successor to Father Peyton, for her many acts of kindness toward Family Theater. Father Phalen honored her “for her witness, her greatness of heart and spirit, her saying yes to the powerful influence that her craft of acting could bring to the lives of thousands....”

In an interview with St. Anthony Messenger at her Bel Air home on March 3, Wyatt lightheartedly recalls her first encounter with Father Peyton around 1946. The incident happened at St. Victor’s Church in West Hollywood. “In those days,” she recalls, “it was a little white clapboard church with a very tall steeple and a white picket fence around it. That particular Sunday, our pastor had this young priest from Scranton [Pennsylvania] get up and make a speech.” She describes how the young priest spoke with a kind of breathless, earnest voice, saying, “‘I’ve come all the way from Scranton to Hollywood because I want to start a half-hour radio show—and I’m going to have all the biggest stars from Hollywood in it.’ He mentioned Bing Crosby and so forth.

“I thought to myself, ‘Poor fellow! He’s never going to be able to talk to these stars—or even see their agents.’ And then the young priest, who was always holding a rosary, went on to say: ‘I want to invite you to come here tonight for a Holy Hour in honor of Our Lady. I hope you’ll all be here.’

“As a rule, I never went to evening services at St. Victor’s because it was badly attended. But I went home and told my husband that I was going back that evening. My husband, who was not a Catholic then, looked at me and said, ‘Why? You’ve already spent a whole hour up there at Mass!’

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘there is something about this young priest. I feel so sorry for him. There’s not going to be anybody in that church—it’s going to look so empty.’ But when I went there, I had to park two blocks away and stand through the whole service! The place was absolutely jammed!”

Peyton Was Mesmerizing

Wyatt uses the word mesmerizing in describing Father Peyton’s personality. “He certainly hypnotized everybody in the congregation at St. Victor’s,” she says. “There was something so appealing about him. He was so tall and so young and he had those pink cheeks. Somehow, when Father Peyton asked you for something, there was no way to say no! That’s the way he went through life. Nobody could say no to him. Just look at the many stars he had on a Catholic radio program. That’s very unusual, you know.”

Though Wyatt could not recall details of the eight radio shows in which she starred at Father Peyton’s request, she had a strong memory of one of them. One day, her husband told her that he had been invited by some friends to go on a retreat with the Jesuits. “I never pushed him into anything,” Wyatt recalls, “but I said, ‘Why don’t you go? It will be interesting for you.’ So he went. Well, he got home very late on Sunday night and I said, ‘What happened?’ He replied, ‘I’m becoming a Catholic!’

“I got very excited. And even though I had to do a Family Theater radio show the next day, we began celebrating his decision to become a Catholic. I had too much to drink and I had a terrible hangover the following day when I went to do the show. I felt terrible and had to go and lie down. I didn’t tell Father Peyton what was wrong, but he kept coming in wondering how I was—and taking my pulse. I just had this throbbing headache. I don’t remember that show at all!”

Jane Wyatt, of course, had a long and distinguished career apart from her involvement in Father Peyton's mission to the family. Born in 1912 in Campgaw, New Jersey, she began her acting career on the stage, which was her first love, but eventually she turned to film and later to television.

Mother on Father Knows Best

Among Wyatt’s most successful shows and, indeed, personal favorites, was one that dealt with sound family values, Father Knows Best. This very popular television series ran for six years, and Wyatt won Emmy Awards for her role as the mother, Margaret Anderson, three years in a row (1958-1960).

Wyatt praises the show for its consistently good scripts and “excellent directors.” She is also proud of the family values it upheld. “Just name them,” she says, “they were all there: honesty, charity, family cooperation, respect for Dad. At the time, most other TV shows were making fun of Dad, but not ours.”

Wyatt was asked to interpret a statement about Father Knows Best that appeared in The New York Times in 1955: “Robert Young [the father] and Miss Wyatt...have restored parental prestige on TV.” “Well,” Wyatt explains, “in many TV shows at that time, the children had taken over and were mocking their parents. Dad was just a funny guy you made fun of. That was not so with us.”

“The three big shows for which I get fan mail are Star Trek, Father Knows Best and Lost Horizon.” —Jane Wyatt

Wyatt also singled out a few of the movies she feels proudest of. The first on her list is Lost Horizon, the 1937 Frank Capra film, based on the novel by James Hilton and starring Ronald Colman. It’s the story about some people mysteriously transported by plane to a utopia in the Himalayas called Shangri-la.

“I think the whole idea of utopia is appealing to people nowadays,” Wyatt says, “because they long for a peaceful world.” Parts of Lost Horizon, she notes, were cut out for political or military reasons, though these have been restored in some versions of the film today. “During the war, they cut out all the pacifist parts of the film—the High Lama talking about peace in the world. All that was cut because they were trying to inspire those G.I.’s to get out there and go ‘bang! bang! bang!’ which sort of ruined the film.”

Wyatt also calls to mind None But the Lonely Heart, a 1944 film in which she starred with Cary Grant. “Cary Grant should have won an Academy Award for that,” she says. “He played a Cockney in it and he was superb!” She also says she enjoyed working with Gary Cooper in Task Force, a Navy film released in 1949.

Mother of Mr. Spock

The film, however, for which she gets the most fan mail is Star Trek. In 1986 she played Mr. Spock’s mother in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Her role was small but significant because of her earlier appearance as Spock’s mother in an important 1967 episode (“Journey to Babel”) of the original Star Trek TV series. She laughs about this episode because the script required her to slap her son Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for refusing to donate blood to his father who was undergoing a heart operation. Wyatt remembers really hauling off and, “wango,” as she puts it, whacking Nimoy right across the face. On a more serious note, however, Wyatt’s good-mother role in the Star Trek series is another reinforcement of family values—even in space!

“I get enormous amounts of mail because of the Star Trek role,” she adds. “Those Trekkies are so crazy, you know. They want to have family pictures of Mr. Spock with his mom and dad [that’s Wyatt and actor Mark Lenard]. So they are always sending these family photos for me to sign.

“The three big movies or shows for which I get fan mail are Star Trek, Father Knows Best and Lost Horizon. But Star Trek is the oddest of them all. Complete strangers come up and call me ‘Amanda.’ Once I got off the plane in Iceland where I was going fishing, and somebody down below yelled ‘Amanda!’ Well, I didn’t know who Amanda was until I realized that was my name in Star Trek. It’s absolutely crazy!”

Her Own Mother Was a Convert

Getting back to her own personal story, Wyatt comments on her own family and Catholic upbringing. She attributes her interest in Catholicism to her mother, who was a convert to the Catholic faith. Her mother, Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt, was a writer for Commonweal and, for many years, a drama critic for Catholic World, published by the Paulists.

In speaking about her love of gardening and birdwatching, Wyatt confides that she has a devotion to St. Francis and has even visited Assisi. “Who can resist St. Francis of Assisi?” she asks. “He's a charmer!...We have a statue of him in our garden.

“I also like St. Clare,” she adds. “She’s the patroness of television. And I was born on August 12, which used to be the feast of Clare. The feast has since been moved to August 11.”

Jane Wyatt has been married to Edgar Ward for almost 62 years. They have two sons, Christopher and Michael, who were both educated in Catholic schools.

That she is a good witness to family and family values is revealed again in her response to the final question: What would she most like to be remembered for?

Her answer says it all. Rather than cite her movies or TV work, she replies: “I would like to be remembered for my happy marriage and for my marvelous children.”

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