Theatre yesterday and today



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Gene Lockhart was born on this day, July 18, 1891. He was a character actor best known for his more than 150 appearances in film and television, not including countless radio plays. He was one of those tried and true reliables seen in so many films that it almost seemed he was everywhere at once.

Gene Lockhart as the judge in the film Miracle on 34th Street,

in the film's climactic scene when all the letters to Santa are dumped on his desk.

Of course, in the days of studio contract players, of which Lockhart was one of thousands, it was easy to go from picture to picture in small roles. In fact, it was common back then for actors to shoot scenes in two different films (or more) on the same day. In 1938 alone, Lockhart appeared in 11 movies, with 23 more over the next three years. Among his most significant credits were his Bob Cratchit in the 1938 film version of A Christmas Carol, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, and Regis, the weaselly thief in Algiers, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, also in 1938.

Shortly after the first talking-singing picture The Jazz Singer changed all everyone knew about making movies, Lockhart, whose career began on the New York stage was recruited out to Hollywood. From the time Lockhart made his Broadway debut in the musical The Riviera Girl, in 1917, he would appear in eleven more shows over the next sixteen years. His twelfth was Eugene O'Neill's one and only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, where he created the role of Uncle Sid. This is the play that was O'Neill's wish fulfillment for a family he could only have pretended to be born into, instead of the one he wrote about years later in Long Day's Journey Into Night.

With Ah, Wilderness, Lockhart broke people's hearts as a sweet and genial alcoholic, a role which won Jackie Gleason a Tony Award when he played it in its musical version, Take Me Along, nearly thirty years later. Uncle Sid has always proven a winner for actors (Wallace Beery and George Hearn in the film version and a Broadway revival a half-century apart, as just two examples) and Lockhart, the actor who created the part, received the reviews of his career in its original production. Shortly thereafter he headed west and what followed was twenty-five years of steady work in the movies.

He did return to Broadway three times between 1938 and 1945, but all three opened and closed quickly. His final Broadway appearance was in 1950, the last of the three replacements that followed Lee J. Cobb in the original production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. This casting choice required some creativity on the part of its producer Kermit Bloomgarden, as Lockhart never was a leading dramatic actor. But it made sense in that he possessed an everyman quality that surely made him relatable as Willy Loman, the salesman who relied upon "a smile and shoeshine."

Gene Lockhart died in 1957, the year I was born. But if the name Lockhart is ringing some bells, it could be because for generations of television fans (specifically of the 1950s and '60s to be exact), Gene's daughter, June Lockhart, was featured on three of the most popular programs from that era. First, she was the mom in the TV series Lassie for seven of its extraordinary nineteen-years on the air (fourth in the history of prime-time television). Fun fact: in its first season, the mother was played by Cloris Leachman, who did not like playing opposite a dog (nor did the cast like playing opposite her, according to various sources). Second, Lockhart played the mom stranded on a distant planet in Lost in Space, the sci-fi cult classic that ran from 1965-68. And third, was the sitcom Petticoat Junction, in which Lockhart was hired in place of Bea Benaderet, who died in 1968. For its last two seasons, Lockhart portrayed Dr. Janet Craig, who came to Hooterville to work and stay at the Shady Rest Hotel, where she finished out the show's eight-year-run. I think I saw every episode. It was Saturday night—what else was there to do when I was eleven and twelve-years-old? And besides, June Lockhart was very pretty.

As the prototype for the ideal TV mom, for people of my generation, Lockhart would be up there with Barbara Billingsley (Leave It to Beaver) and Donna Reed (The Donna Reed Show). So imagine how I felt the day I showed up on a set in the San Fernando Valley to shoot a guest shot on an episode of a very short lived CBS series titled Room For Romance (don't ask) and who was there in the makeup trailer getting her hair done? June Lockhart. And who was she playing? My mother. Incredible, right? She was absolutely adorable and as sweet as could be. Over the few days we worked together, I finally got around to mentioning that I was an admirer of her dad's and how much I liked him as an actor.

Before I could say another word, she looked at me, smiled, and said, "You should have seen him as Willy Loman."

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