Mobile Register January 4, 1999
On a recent fall morning, Mobile resident Imogene Burkhart was far too busy to be fussing with a newspaper reporter.
Better known to the world at large as actress Jean Byron, the 72-year-old retired thespian was having a day filled with the kind of hustle and bustle she had left behind in Hollywood a decade ago. She had just taken her dogs to the vet, and a reporter's phone call interrupted her preparations to leave that day on a working trip to Canada.
Waiting in Montreal was her first acting job in a dozen years. An interview wasn't on her itinerary, but she was gracious enough to grant one just the same – despite the jeopardy it placed on her schedule.
“I can probably tell you whatever your readers would be interested in in a very short time,” she said modestly.
Ms. Byron has spent much of her life acting in stage productions, on TV shows and in fondly recalled B-movie popcorn sellers like 1953’s “The Magnetic Monster” or “Jungle Moon Men” from two years later. On the small screen, she guest-starred in programs ranging from “The Twilight Zone” to “Columbo,” and she played a teacher on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (1959-1963).
But she is best remembered for playing Natalie Lane, the mother on “The Patty Duke Show” – which, of course, is the 1960s television sitcom about cousins who were two of a kind. A revival of that role is what took her to Montreal, where work is progressing on a “Patty Duke Show” reunion movie to air on CBS in February.
The project reunites Academy Award-winning Patty Duke (“The Miracle Worker”) with series co-stars William Schallert, Ms. Byron, Paul O’Keefe, Eddie Applegate and others who had recurring parts in the vintage sitcom. Duke reprises her dual roles as identical cousins Patty Lane and Cathy Lane.
“We were a very close, tight company,” Ms. Byron said. “There was much love between us. The entire cast has been so excited, because we have not been in the same room at the same time in 34 years.”
The sitcom had its original run on ABC from 1963 until 1966. Later, the property proved it had staying power when it attracted new audiences in syndicated reruns. More recently, the old episodes had a long run as part of cable’s Nick-at-Nite lineup.
Ms. Byron described her association with the program as “quite rewarding.”
“I was always proud of the show,” she said. “It was wholesome. It was family entertainment. Not only that, but we had a brilliant, brilliant star…she is an absolutely divine actress, as everybody knows.”
Ms. Byron attributes much of the show’s success to Duke’s double-duty performances as Patty and Cathy Lane.
As even casual TV scholars know, Patty was a typically outgoing American teenager. Cathy was the more refined and reserved English cousin living with Patty and her family in their Brooklyn Heights home.
Duke, who was only 17 when her series landed in prime time, was wonderfully convincing as either persona. Carefully orchestrated camera tricks put the characters on screen together in each episode.
A catchy theme song sealed the deal with viewers, who returned each week to follow the exploits of cousins who made for a wild duet. As the song says, “they laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike – you can lose your mind, when cousins are two of a kind.”
Despite the separation of time and distance and the calmer lifestyle of Gulf Coast living, Ms. Byron has kept close with her TV family.
“We stay in touch,” she said. “I am the only one who is retired. Bill (Schallert) is still active, and he still lives in Los Angeles. Patty, whose name is really Anna Marie, lives in Idaho and has for about 10 years.”
A Kentucky native, Ms. Byron spent some 44 years living and working in Los Angeles before moving to Mobile with her mother, who died early this year. (Ms. Byron lived and worked in New York during most of the original run of “The Patty Duke Show.” But the production moved to Hollywood for its final season.)
“My mother had family here (in Mobile),” she explained. “Los Angeles, if you are not going to work there, is not a great city to live in. You can’t move on the freeways. It’s so difficult to go anyplace.”
Ms. Byron didn’t remarry after a divorce, and she never had children. She describes her present status as “footloose and fancy free,” but she has no plans to leave the Port City.
“You are getting too much traffic, and it’s getting crowded like a big city, thank you very much,” she said. “I do have one country cousin who lives rurally, but that’s a little isolated for me, so I think I will stay here in Mobile.”
She keeps company with her animals (a cat and two dogs, including her new puppy, “Daisy”). Only a few of her Gulf Coast friends and acquaintances know about her show-business background.
“So many people whom I know really will be very surprised to find out that I was an actress,” she said.
Before she adopted Jean Byron as her stage name and before she earned so much as a nickel in show business, the actress performed in amateur plays in the Los Angeles area. After she got her union card, she landed work on television during the burgeoning days of that medium.
That’s how she became a television industry pioneer, appearing on numerous early TV programs. She was even the national spokeswoman for Revlon products and Lux soap back when commercials were performed live.
“I did everything and anything that came my way,” Ms. Byron said. “It was a great, exciting time because the people who were established in the motion picture business – the actors – wouldn’t do television. It would look as though their careers were in trouble.”
While Hollywood’s elite turned their noses up at television, hard-working performers like Ms. Byron found plenty of demand for their talents.
“I took to it like a duck takes to water,” she boasted.
She described TV work back then as a young person’s business. Budgets were short and shooting schedules were shorter. Actors frequently furnished their own clothes unless they were starring in a period piece.
“It was kind of like the old silent days,” Ms. Byron said. “You hit your marks and said your lines and, boy, if you could print on the first take you would work again. There was no fooling around.”
She starred in big-screen film, too – albeit the “B” movies that were featured on double bills in those days.
“I did some science-fiction features which, oddly enough, are now being replayed,” she said. “I am amazed at the inquiries. A gentleman has been telephone interviewing me specifically on the science-fiction films I did. He told me ‘Magnetic Monster’ had just played in France.”
The result of those telephone conversations is the article in the current issue of Filmfax, also known as “The Magazine of Unusual Film & Television.” It’s on newsstands now.
“The Magnetic Monster” from 1953 is among several of Ms. Byron’s entertaining 1950s projects that fit into the category of unusual film and television. Others include “Voodoo Tiger,” “Jungle Moon Men” and “Invisible Invaders.”
“I think I worked one day on ‘Magnetic Monster,’” she recalled. “I was the leading woman, so you know how quick it was.”
Many of those films are available on videotape now, and Ms. Byron recently watched some of them.
“They’re wonderful,” she said, sounding surprised at the notion the low-budget flicks could have lasting value. “I thought there would be so horrible because they were ‘B’ pictures.”
After several long television stints in the late 1950s and ‘60s – including one on a CBS soap opera called “Full Circle,” plus “Dobie Gillis” and “The Patty Duke Show” – she continued to accept guest roles on TV series.
She also branched into dinner theater, and she rode that wave until dinner theaters faded in the 1980s. The actress lists among her career highlights a 1983 dinner theater farce in which she co-starred with the late, great Don Ameche. (The actor won an Oscar for his supporting role in 1985’s “Cocoon.”)
These days, she admires the work of younger actors from her vantage point in front of her TV set. Ms. Byron, who was there when television was young, sees much to appreciate in today’s TV shows and movies.
“There’s boring and there’s disgusting, too,” she observed. “But there’s always going to be great work done. I think America is loaded with talent, and I am so impressed with our actors. I see them all the time on television, and I say, ‘My God! That’s a wonderful performance, and I’ll probably never see that actor again.’”
Come February, audiences will see her again.
Without spoiling the fun for viewers, she shared a few revelations about
the TV movie now in production: The film is set in the present day.
Patty’s parents, played by Ms. Byron and Schallert, have retired and
moved to Florida. Patty is a high school teacher
living in the old house in Brooklyn
A reunion brings everybody back to Brooklyn Heights, and the rest of the story can be found out in prime time on CBS soon enough. (The network has not yet announced an exact air date for the program.)
Although content in her retirement, Ms. Byron won’t rule out future acting assignments.
“This show can always trigger stuff,” she said. “Who knows? I might get work from it.”
Face to face upon her return to Mobile, she doesn’t look 73, although the cast and crew helped her celebrate a birthday in Canada. She has collected dozens of photographs from her life and career, and she speaks enthusiastically about her old TV family. She shared the pictures with them while she was in Montreal.
“There was a lot of hugging, kissing and crying,” she said.
“Those people on the production who did not have anything to do with
the old show just sat there in amazement.”
Webmaster's Note: It is incorrectly recorded that Jean appeared on "The Twilight Zone," although she did guest-star in almost 80 other programs. Please refer to her filmography for more information.