Family & Companions
While less showy than the most popular actresses of her day, Nebraska native Dorothy McGuire deserved the same degree of reverence. Lovely in an accessible, girl-next-door way, McGuire first earned notice on Broadway, where she found fame in the title role of "Claudia" (1941-43). When that story of a child bride and her life lessons was adapted for the silver screen in 1943, McGuire reprised her part and was simultaneously launched as the town's latest leading lady. She subsequently graced such notable productions as "The Enchanted Cottage" (1945), "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), "The Spiral Staircase" (1946), and the groundbreaking look at anti-Semitism, "Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947), for which she received an Academy Award nomination. McGuire specialized in playing women who were nice, grounded and dependable - qualities the actress also possessed off the screen. As she approached middle age, McGuire found her niche by embodying loving mothers, most famously in the classic Walt Disney tearjerker "Old Yeller" (1957), and even managed to effectively portray the Virgin Mary in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) at an age when some ladies had become grandmothers. A warm and appealing leading lady who became a fine character actress, McGuire provided the sort of consistently solid work that allowed her to find acting opportunities well into her golden years.
Dorothy Hackett McGuire was born on June 14, 1916 in Omaha, NE. Her first public performance came at age 13 in a community theatre production of "A Kiss for Cinderella," where she appeared opposite Henry Fonda, still a few years away from his own motion picture career. That desire to act stayed with her, so after initial schooling at Omaha Junior College, Ladywood Convent, and Pine Manor Junior College, McGuire set about establishing herself in the field. She gained experience doing summer stock and notched her first Broadway credit as a stand-in for Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" (1938), eventually taking over the character of Emily Webb from future star Martha Scott. This led to parts in a trio of other plays that proved short-lived. However, she finally found herself in a blockbuster via the lead role of "Claudia" (1941-43) and the smash comedy-drama about a child bride enjoyed a run of more than 700 performances. Plays with that degree of success were usually seen as naturals for film adaptation, so the property was acquired by producer David O. Selznick, who also put McGuire under contract. He ultimately opted not to proceed, but 20th Century Fox felt the commercial prospects were worth the risk and their motion picture incarnation of "Claudia" hit theatres in November of 1943.
The property found additional fame in this new medium and that same year, McGuire wed LIFE magazine photographer John Swope. The couple went on to have two children and remained partners until Swope's passing 36 years later. Now an established leading lady, McGuire reteamed with "Claudia" co-star Robert Young for a different kind of love story in "The Enchanted Cottage" (1945), which told of a homely woman and a disfigured man who find happiness together. McGuire toplined "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), the cinematic debut of gifted stage director Elia Kazan. McGuire was provided with many occasions to display her dramatic capacity in the film's compelling look at the life challenges faced by the occupants of a New York apartment building. McGuire and Robert Young reunited for the follow-up "Claudia and David" (1946), and she gave a remarkably effective performance as a mute woman terrorized by a killer in "The Spiral Staircase" (1946). While critics were often appreciative of her work, "Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947), an ahead-of-its-time study of anti-Semitism, provided the only occasion where McGuire was up for an award from her movie peers. For her fine turn as star Gregory Peck's girlfriend, McGuire received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but did not win. While many performers would have capitalized on such publicity, McGuire instead decided to take time off to return to the stage. To that end, she co-founded the non-profit La Jolla Playhouse with Gregory Peck and Mel Ferrer, and over the next few years, McGuire would grace the La Jolla stage in such productions as "Petticoat Fever" (1949), "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1949), and "Summer and Smoke" (1950).
When she did make herself available again for movie assignments, McGuire was freed from Selznick's contract and able to choose her roles more freely. However, films like "Mother Didn't Tell Me" (1950) and "Callaway Went Thataway" (1951) were a notable step down in quality and although she was courted to star in a television sitcom, McGuire decided that such a project would not be a good fit. Fortunately, offers of work continued to come in. She co-starred with Jean Peters and Maggie McNamara in the romantic travelogue "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954) and was the matriarch of the Quaker family at the heart of the highly-praised drama "Friendly Persuasion" (1956). Her most famous maternal part came the following year in the Walt Disney tearjerker "Old Yeller" (1957), where she played a mother forced to maintain the family ranch as a single parent, while her husband (Fess Parker) was away for a prolonged period. The main focus, of course, was on the loveable mongrel of the title, but McGuire's warm performance did much to enhance her underwritten character. McGuire returned to the Great White Way in a pair of Broadway productions that ended rather quickly, leading to further movie assignments in middling pictures like "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" (1959), "This Earth is Mine" (1959), and "A Summer Place" (1959).
She began the 1960s with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and another Disney hit, "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960), in which she was joined by her "Old Yeller" co-stars Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. Delbert Mann's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1960) proved to be a sturdier dramatic vehicle than some of the soapier efforts McGuire had graced in the previous decade and she gave a genuine performance as the emotional wife of irresponsible salesman Robert Preston. McGuire was also one of many familiar faces who turned up in the embarrassing biblical spectacle "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Cast as the Virgin Mary, despite being in her late forties, McGuire still managed to pull off the role and embarrassed herself far less than some of her co-stars. McGuire's movie output slowed from that point onward. The British family film "Flight of the Doves" (1971) and voiceover work on "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" (1973) provided her sole outings that decade, but she was more active on the small screen, appearing in a handful of telefilms and the blockbuster miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" (ABC, 1976) for which McGuire received a Primetime Emmy nomination. She also took a final bow on Broadway in a revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" (1976-77) and did further stage work in smaller-profile regional productions, including "I Never Sang for My Father." After completing the made-for-TV drama "The Last Best Year" (ABC, 1990), McGuire settled into retirement. Three weeks after falling and breaking her leg at age 85, she expired from heart failure on Sept. 13, 2001. In a very unfortunate and glaring slight, McGuire was inexplicably left out of the "In Memoriam" video tribute reel that aired during the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made stage acting debut opposite Henry Fonda in the Omaha, Nebraska production. "A Kiss for Cinderella"
Was understudy for female roles in "Our Town"
Broadway debut as understudy in "Stop-Over"
Originated title role in the Broadway production of "Claudia"
Film debut reprising stage role in "Claudia"
Starred in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"
Headlined the sequel "Claudia and David"
Received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her role in "Gentleman's Agreement"
Toured as Alma in Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke"
Co-starred with Gary Cooper and Anthony Perkins in "Friendly Persuasion"
Appeared on Broadway in "Winesburg, Ohio"
Had co-starring role in the film version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"
Played the Virgin Mary in the biblical epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told"; last film for six years
Returned to features in "Flight of Doves"; last onscreen film performance
Returned to the stage playing Hannah Jelkes in Los Angeles production of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana"; recreated role on Broadway in 1976
Won Emmy nomination as Mary Jordache, the mother of Rudy and Tom, in the ABC miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man"
Portrayed Marmee in the NBC miniseries "Little Women"; reprised role in the short-lived 1979 series
Acted in the CBS daytime drama "The Young and the Restless"
Played opposite Kirk Douglas in the CBS TV-movie "Amos"
Last TV appearance, "The Last Best Year" (ABC)