Actress Lesley Woods is described in author Jim Cox’s compendium The Great Radio Soap Operas as someone who “made a career out of playing mean-spirited first wives” in the world of daytime drama. Woods would later earn a long list of soap opera credits on the small screen as well…yet to limit her as a performer on the “weepies” would overlook her work on such shows as Boston Blackie and Casey, Crime Photographer. She was born in Berwick, IA on this date in 1910.
A graduate of Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama, Lesley Woods set her sights on stage acting upon completion of her courses…and immediately found work in summer theatre, where her duties ranged from shifting scenery to taking over as leading lady (when the star of one production suffered a fainting spell due to the heat). Woods moved on to a stock company in Michigan, gaining more experience in both bit parts and meatier ingénue roles…and again, filling in for those who did not believe “the show must go on” in spite of illness. When her stint with the stock company ended, Lesley had planned to return to Chicago, but two other members from that company convinced her to move to New York.
Despite her acting experience, Woods found it rough going in the Big Apple. Many producers would tell her at auditions, “You’re not the right type.” But her perseverance paid off; she appeared in a Theatre Guild production of Love is Not Simple, and won roles in both Broadway’s Double Dummy (1936, produced by Mark Hellinger), and Excursion (1937). In between her stage work, Lesley toiled as both a model and clerk for a number of stores along Fifth Avenue as well as posing for photographers and appearing in movie shorts. Her later Broadway appearances include Comes the Revelation (1942), The Assassin (1945), Advise and Consent (1960), and A Case of Libel (1963).
A decision to return to Chicago for a brief vacation would provide the impetus to change Lesley Woods’ career direction…since an empty pocketbook often seemed to be an accessory to her fabulous young actress wardrobe. While attending a party, at which a number of radio thespians were in attendance, Lesley received a suggestion that she, too, “take a crack” at acting in the aural medium. Casting directors would soon learn that while Lesley may not have been “the right type” for stage work, her technique was just right for radio. Woods extended her vacation in the Windy City for two years, where she worked on such series as The First Nighter Program and The Wayside Theatre. It was at this time that she also found steady work in daytime dramas as well.
Lesley emoted on the likes of The Guiding Light (as Helene Cunningham), Road to Life (Carol Evans Brent), Woman in White (Janet Munson Adams), Midstream (Meredith Conway), Backstage Wife (Maida), Bright Horizon (as both Rosie and Margaret Anderson McCarey), The Romance of Helen Trent (Tember Adams), Rosemary (Audrey Roberts), This is Nora Drake (Peggy Martinson), We Love and Learn (Mickey), Joyce Jordan, Girl Interne (Margot Sherwood—this was before Joyce became an M.D.), The Man I Married (Evelyn Waring), and Portia Faces Life (Elaine Arden). The Great Radio Soap Operas credits Woods with fifteen daytime dramas, and that doesn’t even take into consideration appearances on non-soap opera programs such as Bulldog Drummond, The Chase, Crime and Peter Chambers, Dimension X, The Falcon, Gangbusters, Inner Sanctum, It Can Be Done, The Molle Mystery Theatre, Murder by Experts, The Mysterious Traveler, The Private Files of Rex Saunders, Suspense, This is Your FBI, Treasury Star Parade, Words at War, and You Are There.
1946 was a particularly prolific time for Lesley Woods; she was, as described by author Cox, “the girlfriend-confidante-accomplice of a trio of radio sleuths.” On Boston Blackie, she was the detective’s gal Friday Mary Wesley. She appeared for one season on The Shadow as “the only person who knows to whom the voice of the invisible Shadow belongs”—the lovely Margo Lane. And in the summer of 1946, Woods hung out in the dive known as The Blue Note for a brief time as reporter Ann Williams, gal pal to Casey, Crime Photographer. Lesley’s commitment to radio drama would extend to appearances on programs that attempted to revive the medium’s Golden Age, including 60s shows like Theater Five and efforts in the 1970s like The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and The Mutual/Sears Radio Theatre.
Lesley Woods’ attempt to make inroads into television hit a small snag when she was listed among many of her fellow radio performers in the notorious publication Red Channels, which was responsible for the “blacklisting” of artists due to their political affiliations. Yet Lesley would overcome this setback, and began appearing on as many daytime television soaps as she had in her radio days. A list of her small screen appearances in the afternoons would include Young Dr. Malone, The Edge of Night, A Flame in the Wind, The Nurses, Search for Tomorrow, The Secret Storm, Bright Promise, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, All My Children, and The Bold and the Beautiful. Her boob tube resume also includes guest star roles in a number of TV favorites: The Real McCoys, Daniel Boone, Bonanza, The F.B.I., and The Rockford Files. In addition, Woods made the rounds on nighttime soaps like Dallas, Family and Knots Landing; she had recurring roles on Falcon Crest (as housekeeper Mrs. Miller) and L.A. Law before her passing in 2003 at the age of 92 (a little over two weeks’ shy of her 93rd birthday).
Radio Spirits has a fistful of collections spotlighting Lesley Woods’ signature radio roles. She can be heard on Boston Blackie on The Voices of Christmas Past, Great Radio Detectives, and Highway Horror; while her work on Casey, Crime Photographer can be sampled on Stop the Press! and the Casey sets Blue Note and Snapshots of Mystery. Listen to Lesley as Margo Lane in The Shadow collections Bitter Fruit, Radio Treasures, Silent Avenger, and Strange Puzzles…and as a palate cleanser, check out Woods on the Inner Sanctum set Shadows of Death. Happy birthday, Lesley!