In the 1980s, Ann Sothern’s appearances in the movies were fewer. By this point, she had moved with her daughter Tisha and Tisha’s daughter Heidi to Ketchum, Idaho. While she lived in Idaho, Ann owned a few shops and a ranch. But when Hollywood had a good part for her to play, she was back on screen. She would finish her motion picture career in 1987 with an Oscar-nominated performance in Lindsay Anderson’s THE WHALES OF AUGUST.
By the time she made THE WHALES OF AUGUST, Ann was plumper and she was having great difficulty walking. She had been injured in 1974 while doing a play (some scenery had fallen on her), and her mobility had become somewhat limited. She now used a cane, and the director allowed her to use the cane on camera. It is interesting to note that in THE WHALES OF AUGUST, Ann played a character called Tisha, since it was also the name of her real-life daughter. And Tisha Sterling happens to play a young Ann (young Tisha) in the movie.
The role in THE WHALES OF AUGUST brought her new publicity and it reignited interest in Ann’s career. She gave a series of interviews to promote the new picture, and she also appeared at a convention for the cable television channel Nickelodeon. It was the late 1980s. Her two sitcoms were now airing on Nick-at-Night and delighting a whole new generation.
Character roles in the movies and on stage
With the litigation and her mother’s death behind her, Ann focused on her return to the movies. Again, because of her recent weight gain, she knew she would need to take edgier, character-driven parts. And she did that with gusto. She scored triumphs in Gore Vidal’s screen version of THE BEST MAN with Henry Fonda. And Ann electrified audiences as a sleazy prostitute in Paramount’s LADY IN A CAGE, with Olivia de Havilland and a young James Caan.
Ann enjoyed doing these types of roles. Not surprisingly, she told an interviewer, “I only like character parts. I never wanted to be a leading woman.” She would spend the rest of the decade working because she wanted to, not because she had to. She especially had fun spending time with Richard Egan on the set of CHUBASCO.
In the mid-1960s, she played a recurring role as a flamboyant countess on The Lucy Show, which was Lucille Ball’s second sitcom. Then Ann provided the voice-over for Jerry Van Dyke’s mother in My Mother the Car.
In 1966 and 1967, Ann felt it was time to get back to her stage roots. At this point, she did roles in productions of The Glass Menagerie and Gypsy. She was then back on TV, doing guest turns on Family Affair and Love, American Style. In the early 1970s, she was on The Virginian: Men of Shiloh as one half of a crazy sister act with Carolyn Jones. Plus, there were several hit TV movies and low budget films, some of them costarring her daughter Tisha.
Ann remained a highly sought after character actress during the 1970s. She appeared in several noteworthy horror films of the decade, like Roger Corman’s CRAZY MAMA with Cloris Leachman; THE KILLING KIND with Ruth Roman; and THE MANITOU with Burgess Meredith, her costar from RKO’s THERE GOES THE GROOM back in 1937.
Nearly a year after Mrs. Annette Lake had hired attorney John Guerin to sue Ann, there was another development. In June 1962, Mrs. Lake’s attorney filed a motion setting a court date for the matter against Ann (whose last name, legally, was still Sterling). Mrs. Lake denied pushing her attorney to do this and claimed to have instructed her attorney to drop the case. But because he had filed the motion, it was now headed to court.
In October, when they went before the judge, John Guerin asked that someone be appointed a guardian for Mrs. Lake. Also, he asked that he be paid for all the legal fees that had accrued over the past year. Ann’s attorney then filed a motion that sought to have the case thrown out, since she had been financially supporting her mother this whole time. Ann’s attorney took it another step and requested the court impose a fine upon Mrs. Lake’s attorney for filing these latest, frivolous motions.
A week later, the case was finally thrown out. Mrs. Lake’s attorney was not fined or penalized in any way. Perhaps the court learned Mrs. Lake had been secretly instructing Guerin to continue the lawsuit despite Ann’s support. Or maybe the attorney just wanted to be compensated and felt he could force Ann to pay various legal fees on behalf of her mother.
At any rate, the litigation finally ended in late 1962. Then soon afterward, in December, Annette Lake died. No guardian was ever appointed, though it seems like Ann pretty much fulfilled that role. And there was no executor of the will. Mrs. Lake probably wound up with very little of her own, relying on her daughter’s money. What she really had was a daughter who did take care of her until the end, whether or not she truly deserved it.
Trouble with mother
It was the beginning of summer in 1961, and Ann was trying to relax. She had just wrapped production on The Ann Sothern Show and was beginning to think about new roles in the movies. But something happened that would temporarily put all those plans on hold. It involved her mother and her two sisters.
While Ann’s movie and television career had soared, her sisters had followed their own paths. One sister, Marion who was eighteen months younger than Ann, had married and had a son. She was now working as an assistant to Abigail Van Buren, who wrote the widely syndicated Dear Abby column in Chicago. The younger sister, Bonnie, had married a musician and had become rather successful in the music publishing business. But Mrs. Lake, their mother, had long stopped working and she was dependent upon the girls to take care of her. Primarily, she came to depend on Ann the most, who was the wealthiest.
After divorcing the girls’ father Walter Lake (who had another daughter with another woman), Annette Yde Lake had focused all her energies on the careers of her daughters, especially Ann’s. But now she was in her 70s, and as her health declined, it became clear that she needed even more financial assistance to pay her increasing medical bills. Apparently, the request for additional monetary assistance was turned down by her daughters. So she hired an attorney named John Guerin to sue Ann.
Before the case headed to court in July, Ann decided to pay all her mother’s bills. Ann’s attorney had advised her that the notoriety from the case would adversely affect her and it was better to agree to some sort of arrangement. So on July 5, 1961, terms were ironed out, and Mrs. Lake promised to drop her case. This should have been the end of the matter, but it unfortunately was not.
Second television series
When The Ann Sothern Show premiered in the fall of 1958, Ann had another hit on her hands. Her costars from the first sitcom rejoined her, and appearing on the series were a few new discoveries like young Ken Berry who had a recurring role; and Joel Grey who made a special guest appearance, as well as Sal Mineo. There was still plenty of comedy with Ann cracking wise in each episode while pining after her boss (Don Porter), but there was much more music added. In fact, Ann wrote the show’s theme song with her sister Bonnie.
In the first episode of the second season, Ann was reunited on screen with her pal Lucille Ball. In a rare crossover, Ball’s well-known character from I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo, comes to stay at the hotel where Ann’s character Katy O’Connor is the manager. As expected, things get a bit wacky. Here’s a sample of the dialogue:
Lucy (disguising her voice, on the phone): Oh, they must’ve given me the wrong extension. I’m calling Pussycat.
Katy (also on phone, to Lucy): Who?
Lucy: Oh, I’m sorry. I mean, Mr. Devery.
Katy: Mr. Devery?
Katy: We have a Mr. James Devery here. There’s no one by the name of Pussycat.
Lucy: That’s what I call Mr. Devery. May I speak to him, please? Just tell him Cookie is calling.
Lucy: Not Kooky. Cookie.
As the 1960s got underway, Ann had begun to gain weight. Some of it was attributed to her recurring bouts of hepatitis. She was fitted with very stylish fashions for The Ann Sothern Show that cleverly concealed the extra pounds. By the time the sitcom wrapped production in early 1961 after completing 93 episodes, Ann decided a makeover was in order. She would continue to do nightclub acts in Vegas, which she had performed each summer when the TV show was on hiatus. But now she was ready to go back to the movies.
Ann gets religion
While ex-husband Robert Sterling had married Anne Jeffries, Ann started to seek out the company of her good friend Richard Egan. Egan’s star was rising at Warner’s, and at 20th Century Fox where he would have some of his best roles in the 1950s and 1960s. But more importantly for Ann, Egan’s brother was a priest. And through this relationship, Ann had a spiritual awakening of sorts. She would convert to Catholicism with the help of the Egan brothers, and she would remain a devout Catholic for the rest of her life. She even sent her daughter Tisha to a private Catholic school.
There was talk that she and Richard Egan would eventually marry. And sure enough, he soon popped the question. But Ann turned down his proposal, because she felt that since she had already been married and divorced twice, it would compromise him. Instead she chose to remain lifelong friends with Egan. They appeared on screen in 1968’s CHUBASCO at Warner Brothers.
For the rest of the 1950s, Ann focused on television. Private Secretary ended in 1957, not because it was cancelled, but because Ann experienced creative differences with Jack Chertok. She turned to her friend Lucille Ball for help. At this point, Lucy and Desi had just bought RKO, and they were converting many of the old soundstages into television production facilities.
It was decided that Ann would take a year off, then return to television in a new self-titled sitcom that would be jointly produced by Desilu and Anso, Ann’s company (which stood for the first two letters in her first and last names). During the year off, though, Ann appeared in a movie-length 75-minute episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour for which she was paid $25,000. She would also appear in a segment of a variety special produced by Desilu.
First television series
Ann was at a crossroads. The idea to bring Maisie to television had failed, so she decided to join forces with producer Jack Chertok. Chertok had turned out many B pictures and short films at MGM when Ann was there in the 1940s. More importantly, he had transitioned to television as an independent producer, successfully making almost 200 episodes of The Lone Ranger.
With Chertok, Ann created a role similar to Maisie, for a situation comedy to be called Private Secretary. The character was named Susie McNamara and was a hit with audiences. The series ran four seasons, producing over 100 episodes.
Ann’s boss in the sitcom was played by Don Porter, and her best friend was played by Ann Tyrell. Both Porter and Tyrell had good rapport with Ann, and they would make the move with her a few years later to her second series.
Private Secretary brought Ann the first of five Emmy nominations. Viewers looked forward to the show’s broadcasts each week, and at the end of each episode, they would see Ann stepping out of character and addressing them directly on camera. “Good night and stay happy,” she would tell viewers. Then she might remind them about the benefits of drinking Tang (one of the show’s sponsors) before the final fadeout.
At this point, Ann’s financial security was assured thanks to television. She would never forget how the new entertainment medium gave her career longevity that other stars did not enjoy. But despite all her professional success, Ann knew something was lacking in her personal life.