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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

``If you're playing Restoration comedy, you think of how they were dressed, and how they were corseted, and the heels. You can't schlump around.... It comes down to common sense,'' she says.

That wealth of life experience on stage and screen has led to Wickes teaching acting seminars to young students - an activity she relishes.

``You tell somebody do this, do this, do this, and you'll get a laugh. And they do, and they get a laugh. It's the most exciting thing in the world!''

Wickes teaches a respect for strict professionalism in her classes, ``because that was my training, with Kaufman and Hart. You don't fiddle around with the writer's words, and you have courtesy for the other actors,'' she says.

Working with comedy genius Lucille Ball remains one of her all-time favorite experiences, since she and Ball developed a close friendship over the years, sharing madcap shopping trips and enjoying furious word games together. ``I did 14 `Lucy' shows over the years,'' she says.

``The first one I did, which is a classic half-hour comedy that's in all the textbooks, is where Lucy is a ballerina, and I'm her teacher.'' That episode, ``with its `slowly-I-turn' routine, its burlesque comedy stuff, and the Cuban comic bit, had enough material for three shows.''

Wickes says that current television comedy writing lacks the story development that made these early shows so hilarious. She finds it puzzling that viewers don't see the pointlessness of many current situation comedies.

One of the most familiar faces in the entertainment industry, she still welcomes opportunities to play a variety of supporting roles. ``Very often, the good writing is in the supporting roles,'' she says.

Using the example of her most recent television series, Wickes says that ``with the `The Father Dowling Mysteries,' I got a lot of notice, because that character said what the rest of them felt! And that's what's fun about supporting roles, because very often your character is doing what the audience would like to be doing.''

In addition, she says, ``You have the comforting feeling that the money that crosses the box office does not depend entirely on you. Ethel Merman once told me that maybe two-thirds of the money that comes in depends on the name over the title. Hopefully, they come to see the stars, and there you are, with all those good lines!''

When presented with a new script, Wickes first checks to see if her character ``is real. I don't mean to the point that you expect to meet her the next time you go out on the street, but somebody who is real, because all good comedy and farce is the real thing, attacked from a different angle.''

Wickes is exploring the possibility of returning to New York for more stage work. A few seasons back, she appeared at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in a production of ``The Foreigner.''

Her busy routine includes volunteering at the UCLA Medical Center, working on a book, and finding time for a large circle of friends.

``I hang onto my friends who are not in the business with hoops of steel. I can't stand listening to actors who tell you how they wowed 'em in Peoria,'' she says. Although she may be far too modest to say so, Mary Wickes wows 'em wherever she performs.

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