You might not know the name, but the face is instantly recognizable in television and film. Watch one of the classic TV channels and you will see a lot of her work.
When I think of female character actors, Jeanette Nolan is on a select list that includes Ellen Corby, Thelma Ritter, Mildred Natwick, Nancy Walker, Elsa Lancaster, Eve Arden, Mary Wickes and Ruth Gordon and of course, Betty White.
I was amazed by the variety of roles Nolan played. Sometimes I did not recognize her, she might have been hidden under makeup or so deeply into a unique character. She played refined and mannered, crusty and cursing, witches, bossy and independent, frail and dainty – virtually any type of character. Her age and gender did not restrict taking any role, even in male-dominated Hollywood.
Nolan had a career that spanned seven decades, from the 1930s almost to the new millennium. She worked up till her death in 1998. She began acting in theater and became a regular on radio. Her first film was co-starring as Lady Macbeth with Orson Welles in the film of the same name.
Radio was perfect for her career, she appeared on many series and it allowed her to hone her craft using voice inflections, accents and astute timing. Welles used her in his radio theater productions.
Nolan was married to actor John McIntire (The Virginian, Wagon Train) for 56 years until his death. They frequently appeared together in television shows and films. They had two children including actor Tim McIntire. Her last film role was in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer.
“After tying the knot, the couple looked to move away from city life. They settled on Montana, where McIntire had some roots. The husband and wife found a log cabin nearby the Yaak River. They had no electricity and, for at least three decades, no plumbing. They fished, hunted, and farmed on their 640 acres for their food.” – From a MeTV online blog
Nolan logged more than 300 television appearances, including the lead role in the series, Dirty Sally, a Gunsmoke spinoff.
Here are a few of my favorite Jeanette Nolan roles.
Columbo – “Double Shock”, season two
Nolan is Mrs. Peck, the loyal housekeeper to the murder victim, who Lt. Columbo immediately enrages by his careless manner. He spends the entire episodes trying to appease her, but continues to draw her increasing ire. Nolan has few lines of dialogue, she delivers her part by the measured combination of rage and sadness. Columbo has never had a more difficult challenge than to investigate the murder while avoiding Mrs. Peck.
Harry O – “The Last Heir”, season one
Nolan plays Letty, a feisty, independent, wealthy woman who lives in the desert. As her disliked family visits, they begin to fall victim to a murderer. Letty is quite a match for private detective Harry Orwell.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1961
John Ford’s bittersweet film about the reluctant taming of the West. Nolan plays the hard-boiled wife of a restaurant owner who gives a job to a young lawyer Played by Jimmy Stewart.
Dirty Sally – 1974
A spin-off from Gunsmoke, Nolan starred in the lead role, Sally, a hard-drinking and salty character traveling across the country to the gold fields of California. This was a light-hearted show, based on a very popular character that first appeared on Gunsmoke. Nolan was in her element here.
The Fox and the Hound – 1981
Nolan voiced the character of Widow Tweed in this animated film. This was my grandson’s favorite film growing up, so I naturally saw this film often. The cast is full of recognizable names and voices.
Psycho – 1960
You did not see Nolan in this film, but you heard her as the voice of Norman Bates’ mother. It’s an an eerie and revealing performance.