Obituary: Jeanette Nolan

Tom Vallance
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:01

JEANETTE NOLAN was a versatile character actress whose 70-year career embraced stage, film, television and notably radio. For many years she was a stalwart of the airwaves, performing in comedy, drama, soap operas and documentaries and is generally considered one of the greatest of all radio actresses.

Her voice was later used by Disney in animation features. She was in countless television series, including two in which she starred opposite her husband John McIntyre, Wagon Train and The Virginian, and gave memorable screen portrayals in Orson Welles's Macbeth and Fritz Lang's study of urban corruption The Big Heat, in which she presented a chilling portrait of controlled malevolence.

Born in Los Angeles in 1911, she gained acting roles at the Pasadena Community Playhouse as a teenager, and moved into radio while still a student at Los Angeles City College. One of her earliest assignments, Omar Khayyam (1932), in which she was heard as one of the Hindu girls, was the first transcontinental broadcast from California, an event Nolan later described as "overwhelming". She became a regular member of the radio series Hollywood Hotel and soon her versatility, her range of accents and her flair for creating a rounded character through the medium of sound made her one of American radio's top character players.

In 1935 she married John McIntyre, who had also made his name on radio, notably as the narrator of the March of Time series, a programme of newsreel- style enactments of current events, in which Nolan played Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Marie of Romania and the Duchess of Windsor. Other series in which she had regular roles included Young Doctor Malone (1939-40), Cavalcade of America (1940-41), in one episode of which she played Ann Rutledge to McIntyre's Abraham Lincoln, One Man's Family (1947-50) and Gunsmoke (1952-59), plus such prestigious series as Lux Theatre of the Air, Suspense and Dragnet. "Radio acting has nothing to do with looks," said Nolan. "It's all to do with imagination, and a deep creative germ that you are born with."

Another regular on The March of Time was Orson Welles, who used Nolan later on his own mystery show The Shadow and his anthology series, Campbell Playhouse and Mercury Theatre of the Air. When Welles was casting his screen version of Macbeth (1947) and was unable to secure Agnes Moorehead, his first choice for Lady Macbeth, he cast Nolan in her film debut, realising that his decision to have the whole piece acted in a Scottish burr would prove no problem for an actress with such a superb flair for dialects. Though Welles and Nolan are alleged to have had an affair at this time, Nolan's marriage to McIntyre remained a happy one, and the following year her son Tim was born.

Nolan played opposite Welles in a stage production of Macbeth at the Utah Festival in Salt Lake City prior to the filming, which was done in only 21 days. (On the film's release in 1948, the studio re-dubbed much of the dialogue when audiences complained that they could not understand the strong brogue.) Nolan's next film was a more commercial one, MGM's biography of the songwriting team Rodgers and Hart, Words and Music (1948), in which Nolan was the affectionate mother of the lyricist Hart (played by Mickey Rooney).

Nolan's subsequent films were to include a high number of westerns, including Saddle Tramp (1950), Hangman's Knot (1952), A Lawless Street (1955), Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), The Seventh Cavalry (1956) and The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), with the actress often seen as stoic frontierswomen, but her finest role was in The Big Heat (1953), Lang's uncompromising and searingly nihilistic film noir. Nolan is the outwardly grieving widow of a police officer who has killed himself because, she says, he had a terminal illness. She is in fact blackmailing the city crime boss for a fortune, by withholding an incriminating note written by her husband confessing his involvement in racketeering. Her eventual death at the hands of the gangster's moll Gloria Grahame is preceded by a memorable confrontation in which the icily cool widow, in her austere mansion, is told by Grahame that, beneath their mink coats, they are much the same.

Later films included two fine performances for John Ford: in Two Rode Together (1961), as the hysterical mother of a kidnapped child; and as a feisty frontierswoman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). For Walt Disney, Nolan and her husband lent their voices to The Rescuers (1977) and The Fox and the Hound (1981).

After her television debut on a Four Star Playhouse drama in 1953, Nolan became as prolific on television as she had been on radio, with guest spots on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, I-Spy, Charlie's Angels, Hart to Hart, Golden Girls and Cagney and Lacey. Her first regular series was Hotel de Paree (1959-60). She was a member of the repertory company on The Richard Boone Show (1963-64) and from 1967 to 1970 she played the wife of her real-life husband in The Virginian. In 1974 she had her own series, Dirty Sally, a spin-off from the series Gunsmoke.

Nolan's son Tim McIntyre, a fine actor who was acclaimed for his superb portrayal of the disc jockey Alan Freed in American Hot Wax (1971), died of heart failure in 1986 after a battle with alcoholism. John McIntyre died in 1991, but Nolan continued to work and make public appearances.

I met her just four years ago at a radio convention in New Jersey where, with other survivors of radio's golden age, she re-enacted a vintage broadcast and reminisced warmly about her varied career. She still lived on the 640-acre ranch in Yaak, Montana, which she and her husband had bought many years ago, and recently she completed a role as Robert Redford's mother in The Horse Whisperer, which was filmed near her home.

Jeanette Nolan, actress: born Los Angeles, California 30 December 1911; married 1935 John McIntyre (died 1991; one son deceased); died Los Angeles 5 June 1998.

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