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A NEW ROLE A quiet life in Colonial Beach replaces dramaof 'All My Children' career for Mary Fickett MARY FICKETT ROLES

July 19, 2008 12:15 am

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Fickett, 80, recalls her acting days with smiles and laughter. e.jpg

Mary Fickett rests in her bed recently in Colonial Beach, where she lives with her daughter.

By Frank Delano
By Frank Delano

The Free Lance-Star

MARY FICKETT seldom watch- es "All My Children" these days.

For nearly 30 years, she was a star of the ABC-TV daytime drama. As the good and compassionate nurse Ruth Parker Brent Martin, she was loved and admired by millions of people. In 1973, Fickett won the first Emmy ever given to a soap-opera actress. Off-camera, she and her family lived an opulent life in New York City.

Fickett is now 80 and bedridden. Her memory is fading. She has trouble completing some sentences. But her blue eyes still sparkle and she is full of smiles and laughter.

She now lives with her daughter in Colonial Beach. Her Emmy statuette sits tarnished beside the television in her bedroom. On the wall are old photographs of her with Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Bellamy, Charlton Heston, President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.

"I cut many a swath," she said of her career that spanned a half century of radio, stage, movies and television.

Fickett's daughter, Bronwyn "Anne" Congdon, moved her mother to Colonial Beach from a Cape Cod nursing home last summer. In November, a fire at Congdon's house destroyed boxes full of Fickett's scrapbooks, letters and family papers.

"I'm a little bit on hold. I'm not quite with it," she said. "It's amazing how much of your persona gets eaten up by time."

Fickett's last appearance on "All My Children" was in 2000. The show's Web site does not mention her. Fickett's character, Ruth Martin, played by Lee Meriwether after Fickett's retirement, has vanished from recent story lines.

"Ruth's at home or off starting a health clinic in Mexico," said Ray MacDonnell, 80, who still appears occasionally on the show as Dr. Joe Martin, Ruth's husband.

MacDonnell, Susan Lucci as Erica Kane and Fickett were all in the first episode of "All My Children" in 1970. It's been years since Fickett saw them.

Most of Fickett's photographs also burned up in the fire. Her daughter remembers one of her mother as an 8-year-old with pigtails and missing teeth. She was reading a script in front of a microphone. Fickett's father would have been nearby.

Show-business upbringing

Homer Fickett was a leading producer and director of radio dramas in the 1940s and early 1950s. His shows on "The Cavalcade of America" and "The Theatre Guild on the Air" (also known as "The United States Steel Hour") attracted top show-business talent and audiences of millions of people each week.

"Whenever I was not at school, I was at the edge of the pit watching what was going on. I conned my father into letting me get a walk-on," Fickett said.

"He took me out to lunch with somebody, a famous writer for the Theatre Guild. She had a very strong personality. What was her name? Anyway, Father said to her, 'OK, what's little Mary going to do?'"

The Ficketts lived in the leafy Westchester County village of Bronx-ville, 15 miles from Manhattan. After Wheaton College, Mary enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse, a famous acting school run by Sanford Meisner.

In the 1950s, she worked regularly on Broadway and television. She received a Theatre World Award for her performance in "Tea and Sympathy" with Anthony Perkins and Joan Fontaine in 1955. In 1958, she was nominated for a Tony for her role as Eleanor Roosevelt opposite Ralph Bellamy's FDR in "Sunrise at Campobello."

In 1961, Fickett played roles on "The Untouchables," "Have Gun, Will Travel" and "The Edge of Night."

That was also the year she joined Harry Reasoner as co-host of a new CBS morning show called "Calendar." The New York Times called it "a delightful oasis of fun and intelligence."

Fickett said she and Reasoner eventually became lovers. "I was madly in love with him and he with me," she said. "I learned a lot from him because he was very intelligent and very handsome."

By then, Fickett was married to actor James R.W. Congdon. They adopted two children, daughter Bronwyn and son Kenyon. She and Congdon divorced in 1970. "It was one of my many mistakes," Fickett said.

She had two more husbands. In 1977, she married Jay Leonard Scheer, a sporting-goods merchant. She divorced him two years later. In 1979, she married Allen Fristoe, a soap-opera director. Fristoe died this year in Massachusetts.

Anti-war story line

"All My Children" premiered in 1970 with Fickett in the role of nurse Ruth Parker Brent, the wife of alcoholic car salesman Ted Brent. Agnes Nixon, the show's creator, killed off Brent in a 1971 car crash. Ruth then married Dr. Joe Martin, a widower who worked with her at the hospital in the fictional community of Pine Valley, Pa.

Nixon intended "All My Children" to portray contemporary issues. As a result, the good-looking denizens of Pine Valley have confronted abortion, drug addiction, homosexuality, AIDS, domestic violence and many other struggles of modern life.

In 1971, the Vietnam War was the country's biggest problem. By the end of that year, more than 56,000 Americans had died in the war. Sixty percent of the people in a Gallup poll said they had had enough of it. A half million people demonstrated against the war in Washington and 12,000 protesters were arrested.

Agnes Nixon decided that the time had come for "All My Children" to join the anti-war movement.

"Aggie wrote the story line for me," Fickett said. "I felt very strongly about doing it. I stood up and said, 'I want to do this.' She said, 'Let's go with it.' She wanted only me to do it."

In the story that aired in the 1972-73 season, Ruth's son Phil Brent had been drafted. Ruth delivered a touching monologue expressing her doubts about the war and her fears for her son. Ruth's speech resonated with millions of people across America with the same doubts and fears. It also won Fickett an Emmy in 1973 and helped lift the show's ratings.

By 1978, "All My Children" was the top-rated daytime drama on TV. Ruth and Joe Martin were its "tent-pole" characters, said MacDonnell, "the central moral figures" around which Susan Lucci as Erica Kane and the rest of the show's misbehaving, misbegotten, misunderstood or just plain unlucky characters revolved.

Throughout their many years of TV married life, MacDonnell said, Fickett "never really acted. She just was a wonderful human being and a delight to work with. She was very bright and always cheerful, and inspired natural emotions in me and her fellow actors."

Opulent lifestyle

Off-camera, Fickett and her family lived luxuriously in a New York apartment complete with quarters for a succession of housekeepers and nannies. Fickett was famous for her lavish parties.

Her children attended exclusive private schools. Her daughter remembers her mother's walk-in closet. Its left side was devoted to her mother's fur coats. Congdon loved their softness and their scent of her mother's favorite perfume, Chanel No. 5.

In summers the family would take off to Cape Cod, where Fickett's grandmother and other relatives lived. Fickett and husband Allen Fristoe eventually retired there.

Fickett left "All My Children" in 1996, hoping that she could return on a recurring basis. But the show's producers gave the role to Lee Meriwether, who played Ruth Martin until 1999. Fickett then returned briefly to play her old role. She retired for good in December 2000.

Soap operas and "All My Children" have declined in recent years. Nineteen soaps were on TV when "All My Children" began. Now there are eight. "All My Children" is next to last in the ratings.

lIFE AT THE bEACH

In Colonial Beach, Fickett spends most of her days bundled up in bed or in a reclining chair in her room. She shares the little rented house on Ninth Street with Congdon and her husband, four of their kids and three dogs.

"Mom never had this much chaos and noise before in her life," said Congdon.

Fickett's favorite TV shows are now reruns of "Seinfeld," "Reba" and "Golden Girls" with Beatrice Arthur. Fickett and Arthur worked together in a 1953 TV drama. A month or two ago, Fickett happened to see an episode of "All My Children."

Erica Kane, the ageless TV character played by Fickett's former colleague Susan Lucci, was incarcerated. "She looks good in everything, even an orange jumpsuit when she's in jail," Fickett said, laughing.

Fickett doesn't remember the last time she saw Lucci.

"It's a big world. It's hard to keep up with people. You lose track," she said.

Frank Delano is a staff writer with The Free Lance-Star. Contact him at 804/333-3834 or
Email: fpdelano@gmail.com.




1949: "I Know My Love," Broadway comedy with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne 1952: "The Hungry Heart" with John Forsythe 1953: "Armstrong Circle Theatre: Sunday Storm"; "Kraft Television Theatre: Zone Four" with Beatrice Arthur; "The United States Steel Hour: P.O.W." with Michael Dreyfuss and Brian Keith, the premiere episode of the 10-year-long series. 1954: "Kraft Television Theatre: A Hat for Winter" 1955: Theatre World Award for "Tea and Sympathy" with Anthony Perkins and Joan Fontaine; "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Dream Girl"; "Kraft Television Theatre: Woman of Principle" 1956: "The Edge of Night" (occasional roles until 1968); "General Electric Theater: The Easter Gift"; "Pontiac Playwrights '56: Nick and Letty," with Robert Culp; "Robert Montgomery Presents: Maybe Tomorrow"; "Armstrong Circle Theatre: Ward Three: Four P.M. to Midnight"; "Kraft Television Theatre: The Lost Weekend" 1957: "Studio One: A Child is Waiting"; "Kraft Television Theatre: The Glass Wall," with Jack Klugman; "Man on Fire," film with Bing Crosby 1958: Nominated for Tony Award as Best Supporting Dramatic Actress for "Sunrise at Campobello," with Ralph Bellamy; "Kathy O," film with Dan Duryea; "Young Dr. Malone" 1961: "The Untouchables: Power Play," with Albert Salmi; "Naked City: The Fault in Our Stars"; "The United States Steel Hour: Trial Without Jury"; "Have Gun, Will Travel: The Vigil" 1961-63: "Calendar," with co-host Harry Reasoner 1964: "The Nurses"; "The DuPont Show of the Week: Don't Go Upstairs" 1968: "N.Y.P.D.: Nothing Is Real but the Dead," with Ossie Davis; "Lancer: The Last Train for Charlie Poe" 1969: "Bonanza: Erin"; "Daniel Boone: Hannah Comes Home" 1970 "The F.B.I.: The Impostor" 1970-96: "All My Children" 1973: Wins Primetime Emmy Award; "Pueblo," TV movie with Hal Holbrook.




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