Jane Wyatt and Robert Montgomery on 'Father Knows Best'

Jane Wyatt and Robert Montgomery on 'Father Knows Best'

Jane Wyatt, a three-time Emmy Award-winner for her portrayal of the patient, understanding housewife and mother on the classic 1950s family situation comedy "Father Knows Best," has died. She was 96.

Wyatt, whose acting career spanned stage, screen and television over seven decades, died Friday in her sleep at her Bel-Air home, grandson Nicholas Ward said.

A Broadway veteran who made her screen debut in 1934, Wyatt appeared in more than 30 movies in leading and supporting roles, including "None But the Lonely Heart" with Cary Grant, "Gentleman's Agreement" with Gregory Peck, "Canadian Pacific" with Randolph Scott, "Task Force" with Gary Cooper, "Boomerang" with Dana Andrews and "Pitfall" with Dick Powell.

Her most memorable screen role was the ethereal young Shangri-la beauty who enchants Ronald Colman in "Lost Horizon," Frank Capra's 1937 film version of the James Hilton novel.

But Wyatt, who regularly left Hollywood to return to Broadway in the 1930s and '40s, never attained the kind of stardom on the big screen that she achieved on television opposite Robert Young on "Father Knows Best."

As the warm and charming Jim and Margaret Anderson, Young and Wyatt presided over their idealistically wholesome family at 607 South Maple Street in the typical Midwestern community of Springfield.

The series, which ran from 1954 to 1960 and in prime-time reruns for three more years, featured Elinor Donahue as eldest child Betty, or "Princess"; Billy Gray as Bud; and Lauren Chapin as Kathy, or "Kitten."

"Father Knows Best" began on radio in 1949 starring Young and Jean Vander Pyl. But Young and Eugene Rodney, Young's partner in ownership and production of the series, wanted Wyatt to play his wife on television.

When she was originally offered the role, however, Wyatt turned it down.

"I'd been doing a lot of live TV drama in which I was the star," she said in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star. "I didn't want to be just a mother."

But months later, Wyatt's investment-broker husband, Edgar Ward, whom she married in 1937, told her she should give the script another read. She did, and, she recalled, "It changed my life."

When the show debuted in 1954, a reviewer for the New York Times praised Young and Wyatt for restoring "parental prestige on TV." The same year, the series won a Sylvania Award for excellence.

"Our shows were written to be entertaining, but the writers had something to say," she told the Associated Press in 1989. Every script, Wyatt said, "always solved a little problem that was universal. It appealed to everyone. I think the world is hankering for a family. People may want to be free, but they still want a nuclear family."

Wyatt was proud of the series, which has been criticized for not being a realistic portrayal of American family life.

"We thought it was," she told The Times in 1986, speaking for herself and Young. "We, each of us, has been married for 50 years. It is what we wanted to do for our children. We can't have it exactly like life; it would be too boring. We all thought it was life — as we wanted it to be."

Wyatt also disagreed with latter-day critics who complain that Margaret Anderson was always subordinate to her husband. "She was the power behind the throne," she said. "She helped her husband out. Mother always knew best, too."

During the show's heyday, Wyatt said, many viewers thought she and Young were really married.

"In fact, once I even thought I was Mrs. Jim Anderson," she said in a 1960 interview. "We were doing some personal appearances in Seattle, and when I checked into the hotel the clerk said, 'Why, you're Mrs. Jim Anderson.' I smiled, looked down at the register and before I knew, it, I had written 'Mrs. Jim Anderson.' "

During those years, she recalled in a later interview, she spent more time with Young than she did with her real husband.