Thursday, April 11, 2013

Notable Guest-Stars: Jeanette Nolan

So, Jeanette Nolan. A very accomplished actress from just about every medium—stage, radio, film, and television—she’s someone probably everyone has seen or heard in something or another, even if they didn’t realize it.

Apparently I’ve been familiar with some of her work for literally years; she provided the voice of Widow Tweed in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. I love that beautiful, highly underrated movie and I am very intrigued to learn that she played a major role in it. Now I want to rent it again (or buy it, something I always wanted to do) and hear her excellent voice-acting.

Jeanette appeared six times on Perry, but she’s so fondly remembered and her performances so memorable, that it sometimes seems it was more than that. But six is plenty of times to enjoy her wonderful talents.

Her first guest spot is in The Fugitive Nurse, one of my favorite season 1 episodes. There are so many good scenes for Hamilton and Tragg in it. Jeanette plays the penny-pinching wife of the eventual murder victim. And she turns out a chilling and cold-hearted performance in court when it’s revealed that she is the murderer. Her motive was insurance; she says her husband wasn’t worth anything alive and she thought he might be worth something dead. Yikes. If any of the female murderers got the death penalty, I can definitely imagine she would be one of them.

She isn’t seen again until season 4’s The Nine Dolls, and again she is the murderer, upset because she and her blackmailing husband are being cut out of their employer’s will. This time she has a Scottish accent. One thing she’s always very amazing with is voices. I think each Perry character has a different one.

She appears in The Counterfeit Crank, an episode late in season 5, as the mother of Burt Reynolds’ character. This is the first time on Perry that, I believe, she plays a good girl. She also has a very interesting hairstyle in this role.

Of course, my favorite of her Perry characters is Erna Norden in season 6’s The Hateful Hero. She turns out an amazing and heart-breaking performance as the mother of police officer Otto Norden, who is killed in the line of duty. Mrs. Norden finds it difficult enough to have her beloved son gone, but the problem is made much worse when Otto is posthumously suspected of having been involved in the robbery he was supposedly trying to prevent. And surrogate son Lieutenant Anderson’s cousin Jimmy also being a suspect doesn’t help matters one bit. Although he denies it, rumors persist that he ran away around the time Otto was being cornered and killed.

I still can’t help but wonder if there was a strain between Andy and Mrs. Norden while Jimmy was on trial. It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t have been some difficulties, even though Andy could not bring himself to personally suggest the idea that maybe Otto was the criminal. When talking to Perry, Mrs. Norden was so bitter about Jimmy that she couldn’t even be bothered to remember his name at first. (“What’s his name . . . oh, Jimmy.”)

Mrs. Norden speaks with an accent that I think is German. English is clearly not her first language, but she has a very good command of it in general, save for the occasional grammatical slip.

Undoubtedly Jeanette’s most off-the-wall Perry character is in season 8’s The Betrayed Bride. I still don’t like that episode; the family is just so nuts and so much of the writing surrounding them is clearly tongue-in-cheek. But love it or hate it, one surely must concede that Jeanette’s performance as the bizarre and supposedly ditzy Aunt Nellie is incredible. It certainly proves that she is capable of comedic and dramatic roles equally well. (I also saw her play a strange nutcase on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. recently.)

Nellie turns out to be a dark horse; she is the murderer not only of the character in the episode (her second husband), but also her first husband, who died before the episode opened. The second husband knew about the prior crime and was blackmailing her about it, so she killed him. Oy vey, what a twisted mess. And her confession scene is kind of oddball, too, as she tearfully admits killing the second husband “and his red sails.” She really wanted that yacht they’d been talking about getting. In the end, with the way Jeanette acts the scene, it’s really hard to take Nellie fully seriously, even knowing the evil she’s capable of.

Jeanette’s final Perry character is both serious and a good girl; in The Fugitive Fraulein, she just longs to have her granddaughter join her and her husband. The episode, perhaps the most topical the show ever did, has Perry and company travel with them overseas as they try to get the granddaughter out from behind the Iron Curtain. It’s very exciting and intense and features Perry struggling to deal with a court that will not listen to him.

In real-life, Jeanette was married to actor John McIntire, and they remained married from the mid-1930s up to when he died in 1991. Awesome. They appeared together in several shows, both in guest roles and as regulars for a time on The Virginian.

Jeanette herself died in 1998, and she was active just about right up to that time. Her final role was in The Horse Whisperer, which came out that year.

I always enjoy seeing her roles on Perry episodes and am pleasantly surprised whenever she pops up in something else I’m watching. I look forward to seeing her work on The Virginian, which I feel is one of the best Westerns and one of the best shows in general that has ever been made.

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