Comedian Mary Wickes Holds Her Own
A familiar face to movie and television fans, the respected character actress thrives on well-written supporting roles and training young actors
LETTING out one of her hearty laughs, Mary Wickes proclaims, ``I guess I have more luck than sense!'' This rather modest assessment of her success as one of America's all-time great character actresses would be disputed by anyone who knows her work.Skip to next paragraph
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Wickes may think that good fortune was responsible for bringing her to the attention of veteran Broadway director F. Cole Strickland for an amateur production in St. Louis when she was in her teens. But talent has kept her career moving ever since.
After assuring Wickes's parents of her safety, Strickland whisked her away to the Berkshire Playhouse and then to Broadway. Within two years, she was appearing in the smash George Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy ``The Man Who Came to Dinner.'' Her next stop: Hollywood, and the film version of the same comedy, starring Bette Davis.
Currently in the film ``Sister Act 2,'' Wickes is known to audiences for a variety of signature roles, including girl Friday to Danny Thomas in ``Make Room for Daddy,'' housekeeper to Tom Bosley in ``The Father Dowling Mysteries,'' dozens of appearances with Lucille Ball, and roles in nearly 50 major motion pictures, including ``The Music Man,'' ``White Christmas,'' and ``Postcards From the Edge.''
Recalling her work on the film version of ``The Man Who Came to Dinner,'' Wickes says, ``Bette took me under her wing. She couldn't have been nicer.'' Wickes still marvels at the legendary film star's command of the set. ``She could have lit the set, she could have dressed the set, she knew the film business backwards. She had a reputation for being difficult, but she was only difficult when she saw somebody not doing his or her job. Then she came down on them like a ton of bricks, and I didn't blame her. Remember, the success or failure of the picture depended on the name Bette Davis.''
Wickes admired Davis for intervening on behalf of the original writers of ``The Man Who Came to Dinner'' when rewrites threatened to weaken the script. ``She wanted it as close to the original stage version as possible. That was all her doing, getting it back,'' she says.
Wickes's roles in the pair of ``Sister Act'' movies echo two earlier films about nuns, ``The Trouble with Angels,'' and ``Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows.''
Both movies starred Rosalind Russell - an actress Wickes holds in high regard. ``She was such a pro. She came, knew her lines, got to the set, and did them. The `star' part came along with it, but to her it was secondary. First of all, she was an actress. And coming from the theater, you appreciate that.''
According to Wickes, Russell, a devout Roman Catholic, instructed everyone on those films in the precise etiquette and procedures connected with portraying nuns.
``She knew her faith and her religion backward and forward.'' Wickes says. ``And some of the things I learned from her I was able to bring into these last two [movies]. For instance, that long panel, that's part of the habit, that hangs front and back - you never sit on that. You lift it aside when you sit down. It's important to be correct. I get letters from religious people who notice these things.''
Although she never received formal training, Wickes has learned that part of creating a believable character is paying attention to the reality of that character's life.