Who knew that the guy who played the diabolical bad guy The Mad Hatter on the much beloved Batman TV series won two Tony Awards, appeared in such classic films as Portrait of Jennie, Adam’s Rib and The Three Faces of Eve, and even played a child murderer in a remake of a classic film?
His name was David Wayne—no relation to Bruce—and he had a fascinating 50-year career in the entertainment business. He would have turned 100 years old on January 30.
Wayne was born Wayne James McMeekan in Traverse City, Michigan, grew up in Bloomington, Michigan, and after being rejected by the Army, volunteered as an ambulance driver in North Africa during WWII. He attended the Actor’s Studio, and after some impressive work in such plays as The American Way, The Merry Widow and Park Avenue, the 5’7” actor landed the role of Og, the leprechaun in search for a pot of gold in the fictitious southern state of Missitucky, in Finian’s Rainbow. The whimsical musical with dashes of social consciousness ran for 725 performances, and then “something sort of grand-ish” happened to the actor: He won the first Tony Award ever handed out to a performer, taking home a scroll, a cigarette lighter and a money clip for his efforts.
The 33-year-old actor’s rise continued: He was replaced in the show so he could take the part of Ensign Pulver, the bunkmate to Henry Fonda’s Lt. Junior Douglas Roberts, in Joshua Logan’s production of Mister Roberts. The comedy, set on the Naval ship USS Reluctant during the waning days of WWII, was a smash, running for over 1,000 performances and winning the Tony for Best Play.
Even as he brought his acting talents to television and the movies, Wayne continued to return to the stage. In fact, he won a second Tony for his supporting turn as Sakini, the Japanese interpreter for the American troops living on Okinawa after WWII in Logan’s production of The Teahouse of the August Moon. Wrote Brooks Atkinson, theater critic of the New York Times: “…David Wayne gives a rich, humorous, forgiving performance that might have come straight out of heaven, it is so wise and pure.”
The show brought home a Tony medallion for Best Play, as well as a Pulitzer Prize, in addition to its1000-plus performance run.
Wayne would be shut out when Hollywood ultimately adapted his Broadway vehicles, as his roles would be occupied by Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts, 1950), Marlon Brando (Teahouse of the August Moon, 1956), and Tommy Steele (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968). However, he did get to reunite with stage colleagues John Forsythe and Paul Ford– for a 1962 TV production of Teahouse.
Still, Wayne’s big-screen career sparked right from the start. He affected an Irish brogue again for a supporting role in the David O. Selznick production of Portrait of Jennie, the romantic ghost story starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. Then, the actor was cast in Adam’s Rib, the George Cukor-directed Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy legal comedy gem. Wayne portrayed the flamboyant Cole Porter-esque songwriter Kip, who Tracy’s character declares “wouldn’t have far to go” to be a woman.
The relatively new medium of TV welcomed Wayne with open arms around this time as well, as he received solid parts in many of the era’s live dramas. He’d alternate, say, a gig in a Philco TV Playhouse episode with a major supporting role in such pictures as My Blue Heaven and Stella.
One of Wayne’s oddest career moves came when Joseph Losey recruited him for the Peter Lorre role in his remake of M, Fritz Lang’s classic silent film about a disturbed child murderer. The setting was reworked from Lang’s stylized Berlin to an on-location Los Angeles, where Wayne’s Martin W. Harrow terrorizes youngsters and turns the police and criminal element of Bunker Hill into a tizzy. Wayne’s casting was unusual—he was lanky and had light hair, as opposed to Lorre’s dark, pudgy protagonist. While the film received tepid reviews, in recent years critics have taken a second look, recognizing its virtues, Losey’s Freudian-influenced direction, and Wayne’s uber-creepy turn as human monster.
It didn’t help box-office returns that Losey and co-stars Luther Adler, Martin Gabel and Howard DaSilva all wound up blacklisted, and anti-Communist protestors showed up at theaters.
However, the serious lead did help Wayne’s opportunities for higher profile roles. In 1951, he shared the screen in 1951 with a young Marilyn Monroe in As Young as You Feel, then appeared in such efforts as With a Song in My Heart, Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines, Nelly, The I Don’t Care Girl, Tonight We Sing (playing impresario Sol Hurok) and with Monroe again—plus Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall—in How to Marry a Millionaire.
There was also Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water, in which the actor plays a member of a submarine crew battling—you guessed it!—the Commies! In 1955’s The Tender Trap, Wayne showed his versatility once again, playing a family guy impressed with swinging friend Frank Sinatra’s lifestyle and ways with women.
Through the late 1950s, Wayne divided his time between the small and big screen, a pattern which continued for the rest of his career. There were high-profile film assignments in The Three Faces of Eve, The Last Angry Man and as a scientist in The Andromeda Strain. Notable small-screen showcases came in the short-lived comedy TV series Norby, in which Wayne starred as a bank official; The Good Life, playing a rich businessman employing bored middle class couple Larry Hagman and Donna Mills to be his domestics; Ellery Queen, as the police inspector father to titular sleuth Jim Hutton; Dallas, where he had a single-season stint as Willard “Digger” Barnes; and House Calls, assuming Art Carney’s movie role as the senior doctor on the verge of senility.
Other TV work included appearances in such popular series as The Naked City, Gunsmoke, Mannix, Banacek and Barney Miller, as well as key parts in the telefilms On the Wings of Eagles and An American Christmas Carol.
Baby boomers lovingly recall his turn in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Escape Clause,” portraying a nasty hypochondriac who makes a pact with the devil for immortality. He’d make another memorable appearance for Rod Serling in the Night Gallery episode “The Diary,” in which he played the psychiatrist trying to help traumatized gossip columnist Patty Duke.
Despite his prolific career—he worked regularly until he was 73 years old, and had up to seven credits in one year —David Wayne was for many—and will always be– The Mad Hatter on the ‘60s Batman TV show. As the character, Wayne appeared as the cap-fanatical criminal in a pair of two-parters with hubba-hubba sidekicks Diane McBain and Jean Hale, a haberdasher’s selection of headgear, and schemes that include stealing the prized Hatfield Ruby, turning Batman’s cowl radioactive, or having the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder ripped apart by his hat-making machine.
Wayne and family—wife, former actress Jane Gordon, and twin daughters– didn’t move to the West Coast until 1977. By the time Wayne’s career wound down in the mid-1980s, the performer—who was married for 52 years to Gordon until her death in 1993—would pop up regularly on such shows as Hill Street Blues, Trapper John, The Golden Girls and The Love Boat.
It’s obvious from his output the wide range roles he played: Wayne James McMeekan just loved to act.
You don’t have to be a leprechaun to figure that out.