"I'm not a comic," insisted Mary Wickes. "I'm an actress who plays comedy." True enough; still Wickes was often heaps funnier than the so-called comics she supported. The daughter of a well-to-do St. Louis banker, Wickes was an excellent student, completing a political science degree at the University of Washington at the age of 18. She intended to become a lawyer, but she was deflected into theatre. During her stock company apprenticeship, Wickes befriended Broadway star Ina Claire, who wrote the young actress a letter of introduction to powerful New York producer Sam Harris. She made her Broadway debut in 1934, spending the next five seasons in a variety of characterizations (never the ingenue). In 1939, she found time to make her film bow in the Red Skelton 2-reeler Seein' Red. After a string of Broadway flops, Wickes scored a hit as long-suffering Nurse Preen (aka "Nurse Bedpan") in the Kaufman-Hart comedy classic The Man Who Came to Dinner. She was brought to Hollywood to repeat her role in the 1941 film version of Dinner.
After a brief flurry of movie activity, Wickes went back to the stage, returning to Hollywood in 1948 in a role specifically written for her in The Decision of Christopher Blake. Thereafter, she remained in great demand in films, playing an exhausting variety of nosy neighbors, acerbic housekeepers and imperious maiden aunts. Though her characters were often snide and sarcastic, Wickes was careful to inject what she called "heart" into her portrayals; indeed, it is very hard to find an out-and-out villainess in her manifest. Even when she served as the model for Cruella DeVil in the 1961 animated feature 101 Dalmations, Cruella's voice was dubbed by the far more malevolent-sounding Betty Lou Gerson. Far busier on TV than in films, Wickes was a regular on ten weekly series between 1953 and 1985, earning an Emmy nomination for her work on 1961's The Gertrude Berg Show. She also has the distinction of being the first actress to essay the role of Mary Poppins in a 1949 Studio One presentation. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Wickes did a great deal of guest-artist work in colleges and universities; during this period she herself went back to school, earning a master's degree from UCLA. Maintaining her professional pace into the 1990s, Wickes scored a hit with modern moviegoers as Sister Mary Lazarus in the two Sister Act comedies. Mary Wickes' final performance was a voiceover stint as one of the gargoyles in Disney's animated Hunchback of Notre Dame; she died a few days before finishing this assignment, whereupon Jane Withers dubbed in the leftover dialogue.