When discussing the great artists that paraded through the westerns in the 50s and 60s, you cannot leave Jeanette Nolan off the list! She was one of the very finest character actresses of her time, appearing in more than three hundred television shows!
Jeanette was born on December 30, 1911 in Los Angeles, CA and was married to western actor John McIntire in 1932 until his death in 1991. They had two children, Holly and Tim McIntire.
Her career began at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA and debuted in radio in 1932 with the broadcast of Omar Khayyam. She debuted in films playing Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles‘ 1948 production of Macbeth, based on William Shakespeare’s play. Although the film received lukewarm reviews, Jeanette’s career took off playing supporting characters from the 30s through the 1990s.
Her career in westerns was extensive, playing an array of characters from Mountain Mamas to a newly widowed sheriff in season 4, episode 7 of Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone in 1960. In 1959 she was cast as Emmy Zecker in an episode of the western Johnny Yuma on ABC.
In 1963, Jeanette was cast as Mrs. Mertens in the episode “Reformation of Willie” on the ABC drama Going My Way starring Gene Kelly as a priest living in New York City. Going My Way aired after the popular western Wagon Train in which her husband John McIntire co-starred as the wagon master Chris Hale from 1961 to 1965 (after the death of Ward Bond). She appeared in three episodes of Wagon Train during that time as well.
In 1965 she portrayed Ma Burns in “The Golden Trail” an episode on NBC’s popular western Laredo. Ma Burns is a refined woman who, on the side, is plotting to hijack a gold shipment which, in reality, ends out being 36 bottles of Tennessee whiskey!
She was also cast on another episode of Laredo “It’s the End of the Road, Stanley” in 1966 portraying Martha Tuforth and Vita Rose in “Like One of the Family” in 1967. Unknown to many, Laredo was a spin-off of the classic TV western The Virginian. Nolan also joined the cast of The Virginian in 1967 along with her husband John McIntire.
Nolan appeared as a guest star on Gunsmoke (starring James Arness) more than any other actress, In 1974 she starred with Dack Rambo in CBS’s series Dirty Sally which was the only spin-off of Gunsmoke, playing the recurring role for 8 episodes. Nolan portrayed the toothless, hard drinking 62 year-old Sally Fergus on her way to California to pan for gold. Cyrus Pike (Dack Rambo) is the young man who accompanies her westward, while he flees from past partners in crime.
December 19, 1961, Nolan played the title in Gunsmoke’s “Aunt Thede” written by Kathleen Hite and Directed by Sutton Roley. Aunt Thede is Festus Haggen’s (Ken Curtis) cantankerous aunt who arrives in Dodge and decides to squat on some land, set up a still and marry off to star-crossed lovers to boot! She has a wonderful, wonderful monologue toward the end of the episode which is so beautifully written regarding the meaning of love. Her delivery is pitch perfect!
Her versatility cast her in many other genres including crime dramas such as the very popular Columbo starring Peter Falk, Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr and the short lived Slattery’s People starring Richard Crenna. Later on, she would appear again with Mr. Crenna and Walter Brennan on ABC’s sitcom The Real McCoys.
She appeared two separate times on the short-lived comedy The Mothers-In-Law. She played Kaye Ballard’s grandmother Gabriela Balotta and then Annie Mac Taggart, a crazy Scottish Nanny.
Jeanette Nolan passed on June 5, 1998 at age 86 from a stroke. She was buried at Tobacco Valley Cemetery in Eureka, Montano. She is survived by her daughter Holly.
Trying to cover Jeanette Nolan’s career, in full, would take a novel. She was an extremely fine actress with a natural charm for characters. She played her fair share of villains but was best known for her quirky, somewhat backwards, lovable souls. She was nominated for four Emmy Awards.
The Golden Age of Television would not have been the same without the likes of Jeanette.
Her son, Timothy John McIntire, passed away April 15, 1986 from congestive heart failure. He was best known for his character as the disc jockey Alan Free in American Hot Wax (1978) and portrayed the country music legend George Jones in the 1981 TV movie “Stand By Your Man”.