Wyman's professional career began at age 16 in 1932 when she signed with Warner Bros. Wyman followed common practice at the time when she added three years to her age. A popular contract player, she frequently played the leading lady, her roles including starring alongside William Hopper in Public Wedding (1937), Ronald Reagan and Eddie Albert in Brother Rat (1938) and its sequel Brother Rat and a Baby (1940), Dennis Morgan in Bad Men of Missouri (1941), Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright (1950), and Sterling Hayden in So Big (1953). She was also featured opposite Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), both directed by Douglas Sirk. She received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Johnny Belinda (1948), and was a three-time winner of a Golden Globe. She achieved continuing success in the television soap opera Falcon Crest (1981–1990), in which Wyman played the lead role of villainous matriarch Angela Channing.
Jane Wyman was born Sarah Jane Mayfield on January 5, 1917 in St Joseph, Missouri, to Gladys Hope (née Christian; 1895–1960) and Manning Jeffries Mayfield (1895–1922). Her father was a meal company laborer and her mother was a doctor's stenographer and office assistant. Wyman was the only child of this union and had no biological siblings, despite some erroneous bios saying she was the youngest of 3 children. This may be in reference to her foster parents' children.
Wyman's biological parents were married in March 1916 in Jackson County, Missouri, and Wyman was born in January 1917. The 1920 census showed her to be the only child from the marriage. The Mayfields divorced the following year.
For many years, Wyman's birthdate was widely reported to be January 4, 1914, but research by biographers and genealogists indicated that she was actually born 3 years later. The most likely reason for the 1914 year of birth is that she added to her age in order to gain employment doing odd jobs and working as an actress, even though she was still a minor. She may have moved her birthday back by one day to January 4 so as to have the same birthday as her daughter, Maureen (January 4, 1941 – August 8, 2001). The 1920 census, though, has her at three and living in Philadelphia. After Wyman's death, a release posted on her official website confirmed these details.
In October 1921, her mother filed for divorce, and her father died unexpectedly the following year at age 27. After her father's death, her mother moved to Cleveland, Ohio, leaving her to be reared by foster parents, Emma (née Reiss; 1866–1951) and Richard D. Fulks (1862–1928), the chief of detectives in Saint Joseph. She took their surname unofficially, including in her school records and on her first marriage certificate.
Her unsettled family life resulted in few pleasurable memories. Wyman later said, "I was raised with such strict discipline that it was years before I could reason myself out of the bitterness I brought from my childhood." In 1928, aged 11, she moved to southern California with her foster mother. In 1930, the two moved back to Missouri, where Sarah Jane attended Lafayette High School in Saint Joseph. That same year, she began a radio singing career, calling herself "Jane Durrell" and adding years to her birthdate to work legally, as she would have been underaged.
After dropping out of Lafayette in 1932 at age 15, she returned to Hollywood, taking on odd jobs as a manicurist and a switchboard operator, before obtaining small parts in such films as The Kid from Spain (as a "Goldwyn Girl"; 1932), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Cain and Mabel (1936). She signed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1936. By the time she starred in Public Wedding in 1937, she had already changed her professional name to match the name she had acquired from her first marriage; Jane Wyman.
In 1939, Wyman starred in Torchy Plays With Dynamite. In 1941, she appeared in You're in the Army Now, in which Regis Toomey and she had the longest screen kiss in cinema history: 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
Wyman finally gained critical notice in the film noir The Lost Weekend (1945). She was nominated for the 1946 Academy Award for Best Actress for The Yearling (1946), and won two years later for her role as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda (1948). She was the first person in the sound era to win an acting Oscar without speaking a line of dialogue. In an amusing acceptance speech, perhaps poking fun at some of her long-winded counterparts, Wyman took her statue and said only, "I accept this, very gratefully, for keeping my mouth shut once. I think I'll do it again." The Oscar win gave her the ability to choose higher-profile roles, although she still showed a liking for musical comedy. She worked with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock on Stage Fright (1950), Frank Capra on Here Comes the Groom (1951), and Michael Curtiz on The Story of Will Rogers (1952). She starred in The Glass Menagerie (1950), Just for You (1952), Let's Do It Again (1953), The Blue Veil (1951) (another Oscar nomination), the remake of Edna Ferber's So Big (1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954) (Oscar nomination), Lucy Gallant (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Miracle in the Rain (1956). She replaced the ailing Gene Tierney in Holiday for Lovers (1959), and next appeared in Pollyanna (1960), Bon Voyage! (1962), and her final big screen movie, How to Commit Marriage (1969).
Her first guest-starring television role was on a 1955 episode of General Electric Theater, a show hosted by her former husband Ronald Reagan. This appearance led to roles on Summer Playhouse, Lux Playhouse, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Checkmate, The Investigators, and Wagon Train. She guest-starred in 1959 on The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford on NBC. She was hostess of The Bell Telephone Hour and Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre. She had telling roles in both The Sixth Sense and Insight, among other programs.
She hosted an anthology television series, Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theater, for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1957. The ratings steadily declined, however, and the show ended after three seasons. She was later cast in two unsold pilots during the 1960s and 1970s. After those pilots were not picked up, Wyman went into semi-retirement and remained there for most of the 1970s, although she did make guest appearances on Charlie's Angels and The Love Boat.
In the spring of 1981 (a few months after her ex-husband became the president), Wyman's career enjoyed a resurgence when she was cast as the scheming Californian vintner and matriarch Angela Channing in The Vintage Years, which was retooled as the primetime soap opera Falcon Crest. The series, which ran from December 1981 to May 1990, was created by Earl Hamner, who had created The Waltons a decade earlier. Also starring on the show was an already established character actress, Susan Sullivan, as Angela's niece-in-law, Maggie Gioberti, and the relatively unknown actor Lorenzo Lamas as Angela's irresponsible grandson, Lance Cumson. The on- and off-screen chemistry between Wyman and Lamas helped fuel the series' success. In its first season, Falcon Crest was a ratings hit, behind other 1980s prime-time soap operas, such as Dallas and Knots Landing, but initially ahead of rival Dynasty. Cesar Romero appeared from 1985 to 1987 on Falcon Crest as the romantic interest of Angela Channing.
For her role as Angela Channing, Wyman was nominated for a Soap Opera Digest Award five times (for Outstanding Actress in a Leading Role and for Outstanding Villainess: Prime Time Serial), and was also nominated for a Golden Globe award in 1983 and 1984. Her 1984 Golden Globe nomination resulted in a win for Wyman, who took home the award for Best Performance By an Actress in a TV Series. Later in the show's run, Wyman suffered several health problems. In 1986, she had abdominal surgery which caused her to miss two episodes (her character simply "disappeared" under mysterious circumstances). In 1988, she missed another episode due to ill health and was told by her doctors to avoid work. However, she wanted to continue working, and she completed the rest of the 1988–1989 season while her health continued to deteriorate. Months later in 1989, Wyman collapsed on the set and was hospitalized due to problems with diabetes and a liver ailment. Her doctors told her that she should end her acting career. Wyman was absent for most of the ninth and final season of Falcon Crest in 1989–1990 (her character was written out of the series by making her comatose in a hospital bed following an attempted murder).
Against her doctor's advice, she returned for the final three episodes in 1990, even writing a soliloquy for the series finale. Wyman ultimately appeared in almost every episode until the beginning of the ninth and final season, for a total of 208 of the show's 227 episodes. After Falcon Crest, Wyman acted only once more, playing Jane Seymour's screen mother in a 1993 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Following this, she retired from acting permanently. Wyman had starred in 83 movies and two successful TV series, and was nominated for an Academy Award four times, winning once.
Wyman married five times and had four husbands.
Wyman married salesman Ernest Eugene Wyman (1906-1970) in Los Angeles, California on April 8, 1933. Wyman recorded her name as 'Jane Fulks' on the wedding certificate. She also listed foster parents Emma and Richard Fulks as her parents. In keeping with the tendency of making herself older than she really was, she gave her age as 19 on the document. Truthfully, she had turned 16 just 3 months prior. The couple would divorce after 2 years. Wyman kept her first husband's surname professionally for the remainder of her life.
Wyman married Myron Martin Futterman (1900–1965), a dress manufacturer, in New Orleans on June 29, 1937. As Wyman wanted children but Futterman did not, they separated after only three months of marriage and divorced on December 5, 1938.
In 1938, Wyman co-starred with Ronald Reagan in Brother Rat (1938), and its sequel Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). They were engaged at the Chicago Theatre, and married on January 26, 1940, at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather Church, Glendale, California. She and Reagan had three children; Maureen Elizabeth Reagan (1941–2001), their adopted son Michael Edward Reagan (born March 18, 1945), and Christine Reagan (born prematurely on June 26, 1947, and died later the same day). This event irreparably tarnished their marriage. Wyman, who was a registered Republican, stated that their break-up was due to a difference in politics (Ronald Reagan was still a Democrat at the time). She filed for divorce in 1948; the divorce was finalized in 1949. In 1981, Ronald Reagan became the first person to assume the nation's highest office as a divorced man. This made Wyman the first former wife of a United States president who was still living at the time that her former husband became president. Although she remained silent during Reagan's political career, she told a newspaper interviewer in 1968 that this was not because she was bitter or because she didn't agree with him politically:
In spite of her divorce and according to her former personal assistant, she still voted for her former husband in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.
Following her divorce from Reagan, Wyman married German-American Hollywood music director and composer Frederick M. "Fred" Karger (1916–1979) on November 1, 1952, at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, Santa Barbara. They separated on November 7, 1954, and were granted an interlocutory divorce decree on December 7, 1954; the divorce was finalized on December 30, 1955. They remarried on March 11, 1961, and Karger divorced her again on March 9, 1965. According to The New York Times report of the divorce, the bandleader charged that the actress "had walked out on him." Wyman had a stepdaughter, Terry, from Karger's first marriage to Patti Sacks.
Wyman, who had converted to Catholicism in 1953, never remarried. She was a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.
After Falcon Crest ended, Wyman made a guest appearance on the CBS series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and then completely retired from acting, spending her retirement painting and entertaining friends. Wyman was a recluse and made only a few public appearances in her last years in part due to suffering from diabetes and arthritis. She did attend her daughter's funeral in 2001 after Maureen died of melanoma. (Ronald Reagan was unable to attend due to his Alzheimer's disease.) She also attended the funeral of her long-time friend Loretta Young in 2000. Wyman broke her silence about her former husband upon his death in 2004, attending his funeral and issuing an official statement that read, "America has lost a great president and a great, kind, and gentle man."
Wyman died at the age of 90 at her Rancho Mirage home on September 10, 2007. Wyman's son, Michael Reagan, released a statement saying:
Wyman reportedly died in her sleep of natural causes. A member of the Dominican Order (as a lay tertiary) of the Roman Catholic Church, she was buried in a nun's habit. She was interred at Forest Lawn Mortuary and Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California.
For several years, film exhibitors voted Wyman as among the most popular stars in the country:1949 – 25th (US), 6th (UK)
1952 – 15th most popular (US)
1953 – 19th (US)
1954 – 9th (US)
1955 – 18th (US)
1956 – 23rd (US)
Wyman has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one for motion pictures at 6607 Hollywood Boulevard and one for television at 1620 Vine Street.