Jayne Meadows, actress and TV personality, dies at 95

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Posted: Apr 27, 2015 6:24 PM
Jayne Meadows, actress and TV personality, dies at 95

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jayne Meadows, the Emmy-nominated actress and TV personality who often teamed with her husband, Steve Allen, has died. She was 95.

Meadows died of natural causes Sunday at her home in the Encino, California, area, spokesman Kevin Sasaki said Monday. Her son, Bill Allen, and other family members were with her.

"She was not only an extraordinarily gifted actress who could move audiences from laughter to tears and back again all in one scene, but she was the greatest storyteller I have ever known...." said her son, who heads the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Though best known as the wife of the beloved TV host — and the sister of "Honeymooners" star Audrey Meadows — Jayne Meadows had a solid career in her own right. She appeared on Broadway and in movies, gained three prime-time Emmy nominations as a TV actress and was a staple of talk shows and game shows.

Steve Allen, who died in 2000, summed up her appeal in a 1977 Los Angeles Times interview.

"She's an old-fashioned woman, old-fashioned in terms of her attitudes, her manner, her demeanor, her voice," he said. "She has a dignity that is rare these days. But she also has a lightness, an airiness, a girlishness and a certain degree of social innocence."

The red-haired Meadows appeared in several Broadway shows and films before she first became known to a wider audience as a panelist on the prime-time game show, "I've Got a Secret."

She was on the popular show from its first year, 1952, until the late 1950s. In the midst of this, she met and married Allen, tying the knot in 1954, just as he was starting his run as the first host of "The Tonight Show."

"The thing that made me a name on television was not acting — it was (the game show)," Meadows told the Los Angeles Times. With that and her marriage, she added, "Instead of being the tortured actress who might have become an alcoholic or whatever, I ... settled for the security of love, a home, children, money in the bank and 'I've Got a Secret.' "

It was also 1952 when younger sister Audrey gained TV immortality, taking over the role of Ralph Kramden's acerbic wife, Alice, in "The Honeymooners." At the time, it was a series of sketches on "The Jackie Gleason Show," but it grew into one of the most popular, and influential, sitcoms in television history.

Jayne Meadows' innumerable TV guest credits include many appearances on her husband's shows: "Tonight," ''The Steve Allen Show" and "The Steve Allen Comedy Hour," as well as other talk shows.

One of her Emmy nods, for best guest actress in a series, came in 1978 for "Meeting of Minds," Allen's 1977-81 PBS show that portrayed historical figures getting together for a chat. Among the characters Meadows played were Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette and Florence Nightingale, the role that got her the Emmy nod.

Meadows got another Emmy nomination in 1987 as guest performer in a drama series for "St. Elsewhere" and again in 1996 for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for "High Society." In film, she played Billy Crystal's mother in the 1991 hit "City Slickers" and the 1994 sequel, "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold."

She had been largely retired since her husband's death.

Meadows was born in 1919 to Episcopal missionary parents in Wu Chang, China, and barely spoke English when the family moved back to the United States.

Young Jayne Cotter appeared in several Broadway shows in the 1940s, including "Kiss Them for Me," which also featured Richard Widmark and Judy Holliday. She changed her name to Meadows (borrowing an old family name) when she entered the movies.

Among her early films were "Undercurrent," 1946, and "Song of the Thin Man," 1947, the last entry in the popular detective series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.

By the early 1950s, she was getting roles in TV anthology series such as "Robert Montgomery Presents" and "Kraft Television Theatre."

In 1958, she was back on Broadway, starring with Walter Slezak in the comedy mystery "The Gazebo." The New York Times critic hailed her "animated, sardonic performance that pulls the play up taut when it threatens to amble off."

She was also in a 1978 revival of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy "Once in a Lifetime."

When Allen died, she called him "my best friend and my partner on stage and off for more than 48 years. He was the most talented man I've ever known and the one true love of my life."

The two had met at a dinner party in 1952. He sat next to her, speechless, until she turned to him and said, "Mr. Allen, you're either the rudest man I ever met or the shyest."

It was the start of something big.

Besides her son with Allen, Meadows is survived by three grandchildren and by stepsons Steve Jr., Brian and David, Allen's children from his first marriage. Meadows' previous marriage, to movie writer Milton Krims, ended in divorce.

Audrey Meadows died in 1996 after a battle with cancer that she kept from her family, who learned of her illness only shortly before she died.

After Communist China began opening up in the 1970s, Jayne Meadows traveled there with Allen several times, seeing the country of her birth for the first time in decades. She was active in community service, including volunteering at the Los Angeles Mission for people in need.

Plans for a memorial service were not immediately announced.

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Former Associated Press writer Polly Anderson contributed to this report.