October 15, 1879
Palmyra, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||August 13, 1967 (aged 87)|
Woodland Hills, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.|
Jane Darwell (born Patti Woodard; October 15, 1879 – August 13, 1967) was an American actress of stage, film, and television. With appearances in more than 100 major movies spanning half a century, Darwell is perhaps best remembered for her poignant portrayal of the matriarch and leader of the Joad family in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born to William Robert Woodard, president of the Louisville Southern Railroad, and Ellen Booth Woodard in Palmyra, Missouri, Darwell originally intended to become a circus rider, then later an opera singer. Her father, however, objected to those career plans, so she compromised by becoming an actress, changing her name to Darwell to avoid sullying the family name.
The Jane Darwell Birthplace was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Some sources give Darwell's birth name as Patti Woodward. They include Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965, Missouri Biographical Dictionary, Screen World 1968, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Dictionary of Missouri Biography.
Darwell studied voice culture and the piano, followed by dramatics. At one point, she decided to enter a convent, then changed her mind and became an actress. She began acting in theater productions in Chicago and made her first film appearance in 1913. She appeared in almost 20 films over the next two years, then returned to the stage. After a 15-year absence from films, she appeared in Tom Sawyer (1930), and her career as a Hollywood character actress began. Short, stout and plain, she was quickly cast in a succession of films, usually as the mother of one of the main characters. She also appeared in five Shirley Temple films, usually as the housekeeper or grandmother.
She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a role she was given at the insistence of Henry Fonda, the film's star. A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell was memorably cast in The Ox-Bow Incident, and occasionally starred in B movies and played featured parts in scores of major films.
Darwell had noted appearances on the stage as well; in 1944, she was popular in the stage comedy Suds in Your Eye, in which she played an Irishwoman who had inherited a junkyard.
By the end of her career, she had appeared in more than 170 films, including Huckleberry Finn (1931), Jesse James (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and My Darling Clementine (1946).
On the television front, Darwell was among the guest stars on an episode of Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town, a variety series that aired on CBS from 1951 to 1952 in which hostess Faye Emerson visits a different city each week to accent the local music. In 1954, Darwell appeared with Andy Clyde in the episode "Santa's Old Suit" of the series The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse. This same episode was re-run the following Christmas 1955 on Studio 57. In 1959, she appeared with child actor Roger Mobley in the episode "Mr. Rush's Secretary" on Buckskin, starring Tom Nolan and Sally Brophy. That same year she appeared in the TV Western series Wagon Train as “Mrs. Anderson” in the S2E23 episode “The Vivian Carter Story”. She guest starred on John Bromfield's crime drama Sheriff of Cochise.
On July 27, 1961, Darwell appeared as Grandmother McCoy in an episode of the sitcom The Real McCoys. In the story, the series characters played by Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna, and Kathleen Nolan return to fictitious Smokey Corners, West Virginia for Grandmother McCoy's 100th birthday gathering. Darwell was 15 years older than "son" Walter Brennan. Pat Buttram and Henry Jones appeared in this episode as Cousin Carl and Jed McCoy, respectively.
On February 8, 1960, Darwell received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion-picture industry; it is located at 6735 Hollywood Boulevard.
In her mid-eighties, Darwell was semi-retired from acting, other than a rare television guest appearance. She had recently moved into the Motion Picture Country Home because of her advanced age and feebleness. When Disney offered her the role of the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins (1964), Darwell declined the role. Walt Disney, still insistent, personally drove to the retirement home to plead with her and she agreed to take the part. It was her last acting role. In this pivotal scene in the movie, the Bird Woman at the steps of St Paul's Cathedral Square sells bags of bread crumbs to passers-by to feed the pigeons. The "poignant" song "Feed the Birds" was sung by Julie Andrews, as a hymn-like lullaby.
During her last years, Darwell was in poor health. She died August 13, 1967, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital from a myocardial infarction at the age of 87 and her body was interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.