Obituary: Phyllis Thaxter / Actress who played Superman's mom
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Phyllis Thaxter, an actress who got her start in Hollywood in a war movie during World War II, overcame polio while pregnant and then carved a long acting career that led to her final film role, as Superman's mother, died Aug. 14 in Longwood, Fla. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Skye Aubrey, who said Ms. Thaxter had had Alzheimer's disease for the past eight years.
Frequently praised for bringing a quiet intelligence to her roles, Ms. Thaxter made her movie debut in 1944 in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," Mervyn LeRoy's film based on the true story of the first U.S. bombing raid of Tokyo, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle (played by Spencer Tracy). Ms. Thaxter played the wife of a pilot, played by Van Johnson, who volunteers for the mission with her support even though she is expecting a baby.
Ms. Aubrey said her mother had continued to receive fan mail as new generations discovered the film.
"I got a letter about it the day she died, from Australia," she said.
Under contract to MGM and then Warner Brothers, Ms. Thaxter acted in more than a dozen other films in the 1940s and early 1950s, often cast as the loyal, wholesome girl standing by her troubled or imperiled man.
Her movies included "The Sea of Grass," with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; "Blood on the Moon," with Robert Mitchum; "She's Working Her Way Through College," with Ronald Reagan; "Springfield Rifle," with Gary Cooper; "Jim Thorpe -- All American," with Burt Lancaster; and "The Breaking Point," with John Garfield and Patricia Neal.
In August 1952, Ms. Thaxter went for a swim in the icy waters off Cushing's Island, Maine, and suddenly lost all strength in her legs. Her brother rescued her. It was the first symptom of polio.
Ms. Thaxter, who was pregnant, wound up in an iron lung because the disease had weakened the muscles needed for breathing. A few weeks later, however, she walked out of the hospital. She gave birth to a healthy son the following January. The bout with polio left her with nerve problems that caused pain in her feet, her daughter said, but "she never complained."
During the 1950s Ms. Thaxter began a prolific television career. Among the dozens of shows on which she appeared were "Wagon Train," "The Twilight Zone," "The Fugitive" and "Murder, She Wrote."
In "Superman," the 1978 blockbuster starring Christopher Reeve, she and Glenn Ford played the childless farming couple Ma and Pa Kent, who chance upon a foundling baby under unique circumstances and adopt him, and soon catch on that to call him gifted and talented would be an understatement.
Phyllis St. Felix Thaxter was born Nov. 20, 1919, in Portland, Maine. Her father, Sidney, was a state supreme court justice; her mother, Phyllis Schuyler, was a Shakespearean actress and a journalist.
Ms. Thaxter studied at the Montreal Repertory Theater in the 1930s and made her way to Broadway, where Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne hired her as an understudy. In New York City, she met the actor Montgomery Clift.
"They were very much in love," Ms. Aubrey said of her mother and Mr. Clift. "They talked about getting married. They were planning on it. Then he found out he was gay."
Ms. Thaxter and Mr. Clift remained close friends, Aubrey said.
Ms. Thaxter was earning rave reviews on stage in the comedy "Claudia" when she was invited to Hollywood for a screen test and hired for "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo." In a magazine interview soon after, she said she didn't feel she belonged in Hollywood because she wasn't beautiful or glamorous.
Indeed, the Internet Movie Database says of her, "So natural and unglamorous was she that she tended to blend into the woodwork while the flashier actresses often stole the thunder and the notices."
First Published August 24, 2012 12:00 am