'Father Knows Best' Matriarch Jane Wyatt Dies at 96

To the millions watching the 1950s TV show "Father Knows Best," actress Jane Wyatt was the wholesome stay-at-home mom who, the series' title notwithstanding, could be counted on every week to solve crises on the homefront.

"Each script always solved a little problem that was universal," she told The Associated Press in 1989. "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, who won three Emmy Awards, died Friday in her sleep of natural causes at her Bel-Air home, according to publicist Meg McDonald. She was 96.

"Ninety-six and a few months old is a wonderful life," her son, Christopher Ward, said Sunday.

Wyatt had a successful film career in the 1930s and '40s, notably as Ronald Colman's lover in 1937's "Lost Horizon." She worked throughout the 1970s and 80s, appearing on TV shows including "St. Elsewhere."

But it was her years as Robert Young's TV wife, Margaret Anderson, on "Father Knows Best" that brought the actress her lasting fame. She gamely delivered lines like "Eat your dinner, dear," or "How did you do in school today?"

She appeared in 207 half-hour episodes from 1954 to 1960 and won three Emmys as best actress in a dramatic series in the years 1958 to 1960. The show began as a radio sitcom in 1949; it moved to television in 1954.

In later years critics claimed that shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie and Harriet" presented a glossy, unreal view of the American family.

In defense, Wyatt commented in 1966: "We tried to preserve the tradition that every show had something to say. The children were complicated personally, not just kids. We weren't just five Pollyannas."

It was a tribute to the popularity of the show that after its run ended, it continued in reruns on CBS and ABC for three years in prime-time, a TV rarity. The show came to an end because Young, who had also played the father in the radio version, had enough. Wyatt remarked in 1965 that she was tired, too.

"The first year was pure joy," she said. "The second year was when the problems set in. We licked them, and the third year was smooth going. Fatigue began to set in during the fourth year. We got through the fifth year because we all thought it would be the last. The sixth? Pure hell."

The role wasn't the only time in her 60 years in films and TV that Wyatt was cast as the warm, compassionate wife and mother. She even played Mr. Spock's mom in the original "Star Trek" series and the feature "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."

"In real life my grandmother embodied the persona of Margaret Anderson," said grandson Nicholas Ward. "She was loving and giving and always gave her time to other people."

She got her start in films in the mid-'30s, appearing in "One More River," "Great Expectations," "We're Only Human" and "The Luckiest Girl in the World." When Frank Capra chose her to play the Shangri-la beauty in "Lost Horizon," her reputation was made. Moviegoers were entranced by the scene -- chaste by today's standards -- in which Colman sees her swimming nude in a mountain lake.

Wyatt enjoyed career longevity with her reliable portrayals of genteel, understanding women. Among the notable films:

"Buckskin Frontier" (with Richard Dix), "None But the Lonely Heart" (Cary Grant), "Boomerang" (Dana Andrews), "Gentleman's Agreement" (Gregory Peck), "Pitfall" (Dick Powell), "No Minor Vices" (Dana Andrews), "Canadian Pacific" (Randolph Scott), "My Blue Heaven" (Betty Grable, Dan Dailey) and "Criminal Lawyer" (Pat O'Brien).

"Father Knows Best" enjoyed such lasting popularity in reruns and people's memories that the cast returned years later for two reunion movies. She also remained active on other projects and in charity work.

Wyatt was born in Campgaw, N.J., into a wealthy family in 1910, according to McDonald, her publicist. She was schooled at the fashionable Miss Chapin's school and Barnard College.

She left college after two years to apprentice at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Mass., alternating between Berkshire and Broadway and appearing with Charles Laughton, Louis Calhern, Lillian Gish and Osgood Perkins.

In 1935 she married Edgar Ward in Santa Fe, N.M., whom she met while in college. They had two sons, Christopher and Michael.

Her sons said their mother had had health problems since a stroke at 85, but that her mind was sharp until her death. "She continued to go to the theater, loved movies and spent time in her garden. She enjoyed her latter years," said Nicholas Ward.

A funeral Mass was scheduled for Friday, followed by a private burial.

Wyatt also is survived by three grandchildren Nicholas, Andrew and Laura; and five great grandchildren.