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Happy Birthday, Jeanette Nolan!

Actress Jeanette Nolan—born in Los Angeles on this date in 1911—met future husband John McIntire while working on a West Coast radio program in the 1930s.  John was the announcer for a show on which Jeanette was appearing, and as she told Radio Life in 1945: “Right then, I thought he should be acting as well as announcing.”  McIntire took her advice and soon he could be heard performing opposite his wife on programs like The Cavalcade of AmericaThe March of TimeThe Court of Missing Heirs…and co-starring on too many daytime dramas to count.  McIntire would later become celebrated for work on TV shows like Naked City and Wagon Train…but since it is Jeanette’s birthday, we should concentrate on her incredible career as one of the medium’s finest character actresses.

As an L.A. native, Jeanette Nolan attended Abraham Lincoln High School and upon graduation, had plans to study music at Los Angeles City College (she aspired to sing opera).  Her plans were sidetracked when she became a member of the Pasadena Playhouse…but for a time, Jeanette had to quit college and the Playhouse because she couldn’t afford carfare on what she was making as a clerk in a local department store ($2.37 a day, during the Great Depression).  Her friend True Boardman, who had attended the same high school, suggested she give radio a try and made an appointment for her to see a man named Cyril Armbrister at Earnshaw Young.  Armbrister had Nolan read…and the following day the aspiring young thespian had a job that would net her $7.50.  As she later reminisced to Leonard Maltin: “I went to my boss and said, ‘I have to quit.’  She said, ‘What’s the matter?’  And I said, ‘Well, I have a job and it’s going to pay me $7.50.’  She said, ‘Listen, Sarah Bernhardt, you keep your job; if you get more work, we’ll let you go.’  It was just so darling, they kept me on.”

Jeanette Nolan made her radio debut over station KHJ in a production of Omar Khayyam, the first transcontinental broadcast.  Nolan can be heard in the surviving radio serials Tarzan of the Apes and Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher (with husband John as narrator), eventually working her way up to portraying major roles on The March of Time and supplementing that with gigs on Calling All Cars, Great PlaysThe Jack Pearl ShowRadio GuildThe Shadow, and Young Dr. Malone.  Many of those acting jobs allowed her to work with McIntire, with whom she tied the knot in 1935. The couple performed alongside one another so often that they were nicknamed “the Lunt and Fontanne of radio.”  (The McIntires would later purchase a piece of property in Montana in the mid-40s—nicknamed “The Yaak” because of its proximity to the Yaak River—where they enjoyed a life of peaceful seclusion three miles from the Canadian border and fourteen from the nearest mail drop.  Whenever they needed money, they’d go to New York and get radio work.)

Jeanette Nolan would become, by the 1940s, one of radio’s busiest and in-demand actresses.  She emoted on serialized dramas like Big SisterHome of the Brave, and Life Begins; she even had a recurring role (as Nicolette Moore) on Carlton E. Morse’s One Man’s Family.  Much of her work can be heard on surviving broadcasts of The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre. At this point in her career, Nolan’s radio resume also included The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe ClockThe Columbia WorkshopCrime Doctor (because husband John played the title role—it was not uncommon for him to psychoanalyze his own wife!), Family TheatreFavorite StoryThe Ford TheatreThe Great GildersleeveHedda Hopper’s HollywoodI Love AdventureLet George Do It,Manhattan at MidnightMeet Mr. MeekThe Perfect CrimeThe Railroad Hour, and The Upper Room.  Jeanette was also one of the many prominent performers on EscapeSuspense, and The Whistler.

Jeanette Nolan’s work on Orson Welles’ This is My Best (and The Shadow) would pave the way for her motion picture debut. Orson convinced Republic Studios—known primarily for their B-Westerns and serials—to finance a production of Macbeth in 1948 (co-starring Ms. Nolan).  Surprisingly, Jeanette did not get good notices for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. (Personally, it’s my favorite of all the cinematic versions of “the Scottish play,” but the movie was panned by many critics.) It wasn’t until years later that its reputation improved after being reevaluated.  Macbeth led to plum parts in movies like Words and Music (1948) and No Sad Songs for Me (1950). I’ve seen many of Nolan’s films (she’s one of my old-time radio loves) and I thought she gave standout performances in features (a lot of them Westerns) like The Secret of Convict Lake (1951), Hangman’s Knot (1952), Seventh Cavalry (1956), The Halliday Brand (1957), and The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957).  Jeanette’s best movie at this time was the classic 1953 film noir The Big Heat; as Bertha Duncan—the scheming wife of a croaked cop found to be on the take—she brought a real “Lady Macbeth” wickedness to the role.

At the radio microphone, Jeanette Nolan kept busy. Elliott Lewis utilized her services often on his series Broadway’s My BeatCrime Classics, and On Stage, while Norman Macdonnell made sure she had fine showcases on The Adventures of Philip MarloweFort LaramieGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelRogers of the Gazette, and Romance.  The 1950s may have seen the transition of popular home entertainment from radio to television, but Jeanette still found work on such shows as The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe CBS Radio WorkshopFather Knows BestFibber McGee & MollyFrontier GentlemanThe General Electric TheatreThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star Theatre, Hopalong CassidyJason and the Golden FleeceThe LineupThe Man Called XMr. PresidentNight BeatPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Six ShooterTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBI, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

You wouldn’t have seen her onscreen…but one of Jeanette Nolan’s high-profile movie roles was a bit of voice work as one of several actresses (including Virginia Gregg) to voice Mrs. Bates, the mother of Psycho (1960) protagonist Norman.  Jeanette was featured in two of John Ford’s later-career films, Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). However, she made more of an impression on the small screen where she would eventually notch up a staggering number of credits (and four Emmy nominations for series like The Richard Boone Show and I Spy),appearing on such series as Alfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Twilight ZoneDr. KildarePerry MasonLaredo, and Wagon Train.  From 1959 to 1960, she co-starred on Hotel de Paree—a TV oater that found her portraying Annette Deveraux, co-owner of the titular establishment.  She often guest-starred on the TV Gunsmoke, including a memorable turn as Festus’ “Aunt Thedy.” In fact, her two-episode appearance as frontier bag lady “Sally Fergus” resulted in a spin-off, Dirty Sally, which enjoyed a brief run in 1974.

Jeanette Nolan’s longest-running TV role was alongside her husband John McIntire. They took over ownership of the Shiloh Ranch (as Clay and Holly Granger) on The Virginian from 1967 to 1970.  Nolan continued to make the rounds of series like Night GalleryMannix, and Medical Center. She also shared some memorable gigs with husband John: the couple supplied voices for the Disney features The Rescuers (1977) and The Fox and the Hound (1981). One of the McIntires’ standout film performances was as the villains in 1984’s Cloak and Dagger—a remake of the 1949 noir The Window.  (The duo also had an unforgettable showcase as the parents of John Larroquette‘s character on Night Court.)  John McIntire passed away in 1991 and Jeanette followed seven years later, after completing her final film appearance in The Horse Whisperer (1998).

Despite branching out into movies and television, Jeanette Nolan never really abandoned radio. She worked on 70s drama revivals like The Hollywood Radio Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre, and was an active member in CART—California Artists Radio Theatre.  Radio Spirits offers a collection of Sears broadcasts on Mutual Radio Theatre, plus you can check out our birthday girl on our audio compendium saluting the Fourth Estate in Stop the Press!  But we’re just getting started: we have much more Nolan on sets of The Adventures of Philip MarloweBroadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers, Great White Way), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Escape (EssentialsPeril), Fort Laramie (Volume Two), Frontier GentlemanGunsmoke (Around Dodge CityThe RoundupSnakebite), Have Gun – Will Travel (Blind Courage), Jack Benny (Be Our Guest), Let George Do It (Cry UncleFull DetailsSweet Poison), The Line-Up (Witness), The Man Called XNight Beat (Human Interest), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Homicide Made EasyMayhem is My Business), RomanceThe Shadow (Bitter FruitStrange Puzzles), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel), Suspense (Ties That BindWages of Sin), The Whistler (Eleventh Hour), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Expense Account SubmittedThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMysterious MattersWayward Matters).

One Comment

  1. I have long admired Ms. Nolan’s long and varied career but seeing the titles and the dates you include in this tribute makes her accomplishments staggeringly real. Brava to her, and bravo to you.

    My birthdate tweet to Jeanette of last week: JEANETTE NOLAN born this date (1911–1998). Since childhood, I have imagined we were related and I have no intention of doing an ancestry search and discovering any different.

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