The ''Falcon Crest'' star leaves behind more than 60 years of memorable performances

By Dave Kehr
Updated September 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

A consummate professional known for her down-to-earth performances and a dogged work ethic, Jane Wyman died Sept. 10 at the age of 90 from natural causes in Rancho Mirage, Calif., leaving behind a body of work that covers more than 60 years. Born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Mo., Wyman first appeared in the 1932 musical The Kid From Spain. After spending years as a contract player, she broke through with a role in the 1945 film The Lost Weekend and an Oscar-nominated performance as Gregory Peck’s wife in 1946’s The Yearling. But it was her portrayal of a deaf-mute rape victim in the 1948 drama Johnny Belinda that landed Wyman a Best Actress Oscar. At the same time, her marriage to future president Ronald Reagan was falling apart; they divorced the year Belinda was released. In the 1950s, Wyman became the leading incarnation of the gracious American wife in two melodramas for director Douglas Sirk. Magnificent Obsession earned her the last of her four Oscar nominations, while All That Heaven Allows inspired Todd Haynes’ acclaimed 2002 homage, Far From Heaven. Meanwhile, Wyman surprised her moviemaking peers by going on to host and co-produce the TV program Jane Wyman Theater in 1955. Eventually, her feature-film work diminished; in 1981 she staged a comeback — cast against type — as the cunning matriarch Angela Channing in the prime-time soap Falcon Crest. Remembers costar Susan Sullivan, ”When I was on that show, I said, ‘I’m watching Jane. I’m a diva in training!’ because she was both things: She did want to be with the crew and she knew everybody’s name, but she was the queen of that show.” — Additional reporting by Tanner Stransky