Actress won Oscar for 'Johnny Belinda'

Jane Wyman, Oscar winner as the deaf rape victim in “Johnny Belinda,” star of the long-running TV series “Falcon Crest” and first wife of Ronald Reagan, has died at her desert home. She was 93.

Wyman died Monday morning at her Palm Springs home, said Richard Adney of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Cathedral City. There were no other details immediately available.

Wyman’s film career began with “Gold Diggers of 1937” and ended in 1969 co-starring with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in “How to Commit Marriage.” From 1981 to 1990 she played Angela Channing, a Napa Valley winery owner who maintained her power with a steely will on “Falcon Crest.”

Her marriage in 1940 to fellow Warner Bros. contract player Reagan was celebrated in the fan magazines as one of Hollywood’s ideal unions. While he was in uniform during World War II, her career ascended, signaled by her 1946 Academy Award nomination for “The Yearling.”

The couple divorced in 1948, the year she won the award for “Johnny Belinda.” Reagan reportedly cracked to a friend: “Maybe I should name Johnny Belinda as co-respondent.”

After Reagan became governor of California and then president of the United States, Wyman kept a decorous silence about her ex-husband, who had married actress Nancy Davis. In a 1968 newspaper interview, Wyman explained the reason:

“It’s not because I’m bitter or because I don’t agree with him politically. I’ve always been a registered Republican. But it’s bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives, that’s all. Also, I don’t know a damn thing about politics.”

A few days after Reagan died on June 5, 2004, Wyman broke her silence, saying: “America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man.”

It was 1936 when Warner Bros. signed Wyman to a long-term contract. She long remembered the first line she spoke as a chorus girl to show producer Dick Powell: “I’m Bessie Fuffnik. I swim, ride, dive, imitate wild birds and play the trombone.”

Warner Bros. was notorious for typecasting its contract players, and Wyman suffered that fate. She recalled in 1968: “For 10 years I was the wisecracking lady reporter who stormed the city desk snapping, `Stop the presses! I’ve got a story that will break this town wide open!”’

In 1937, Wyman married a wealthy manufacturer of children’s clothes, Myron Futterman, in New Orleans. The marriage was reported as her second, but an earlier marriage was never confirmed. She divorced him in November 1938, declaring she wanted children and he didn’t.

The actress became entranced by Reagan, a handsome former sportscaster who was a newcomer to the Warner lot. She wangled a date with him, and a romance ensued.

After returning from a personal appearance tour with columnist Louella Parsons, they were married on Jan. 26, 1940. The following year she gave birth to a daughter, Maureen. They later adopted a son, Michael. They also had a daughter who was born several months premature in June 1947 and died a day later.

In Reagan’s autobiography “An American Life,” the index shows only one mention of Wyman, and it runs for only two sentences. “That same year I made the Knute Rockne movie, I married Jane Wyman, another contract player at Warners,” Reagan wrote. “Our marriage produced two wonderful children, Maureen and Michael, but it didn’t work out, and in 1948 we were divorced.” The final divorce decree was issued in 1949.

Their daughter Maureen died in August 2001 after a battle with cancer. At the funeral, Wyman, balancing on a cane, put a cross on the casket. Reagan, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was not well enough to attend.

Early in their marriage, Reagan’s career grew with “Knute Rockne – All American” and “King’s Row” while Wyman languished as “Joan Blondell of the B’s.” That changed after Reagan joined the army.

Wyman escaped B pictures by persuading Jack Warner to loan her to Paramount for “The Lost Weekend.” The film won the Academy Award for 1945 and led to another loanout – to MGM for “The Yearling.” De-glamourized as a backwoods wife and mother, the actress received her first Academy Award nomination.

After 40 films at Warner Bros., Wyman achieved her first acting challenge with “Johnny Belinda.” When Jack Warner saw a rough cut of the film, he ranted to the director, Jean Negulesco: “We invented talking pictures, and you make a picture about a deaf and dumb girl!”

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