Mary Fickett, one of All My Children’s original cast members, died on September 8 at her home in Virginia from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Fickett played one of AMC’s most beloved matriarchs, Ruth Brent Martin, from 1970 to 1995 and then from 1998 to 2000. AMC has announced it will dedicate its September 21 episode to the actress, who made history when she won the very first Emmy Award given to an actress in a daytime drama.
AMC creator Agnes Nixon – always known for her socially relevant storytelling – penned a storyline involving Ruth’s adopted son Phil Brent (then played by Richard Hatch) being sent to Vietnam. Ruth delivered an unforgettable anti-war speech that earned Fickett the Emmy in 1973. She was also nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress in a Daytime Drama in 1974 for the story in which Phil went missing in action. In 1978, Fickett was honored with another Emmy nod for Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama for her performance during the story of Ruth’s rape. That year, she went up against her own co-star Susan Lucci for the award, which ultimately went to Another World’s Laurie Heineman (Sharlene Frame)
Born May 23, 1928, in Bronxville, N.Y., Fickett was introduced to showbiz at an early age. Her father, Homer, was a radio producer and director. She went on to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and made her Broadway debut in “I Know My Love” in 1949. Her Broadway career continued and she went on to receive a Tony nomination in 1958 for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in “Sunrise at Campobello.”
In 1957, Fickett landed her first film, Man on Fire, starring opposite Bing Crosby. But it was television that gave her the most recognition. She performed in anthology programs like Kraft Theatre, Armstrong Circle Theatre and The United States Steel Hour and guest-starred in TV shows like The Untouchables and Have Gun—Will Travel. In 1961, Fickett co-hosted the CBS weekday news and information program Calendar with Harry Reasoner. A TV Guide review at the time called Fickett “another intelligent questioner and commentator" rather than someone who just represented "the woman's side."
Having previously gotten her feet wet in daytime dramas with a role in the 1954 TV version of the successful radio show Portia Faces Life, starring Frances Reid (who went on to become Days of Our Lives’ beloved matriarch Alice Horton), Fickett landed other parts in daytime soaps. In 1961, she played Miss Long on NBC’s Young Dr. Malone and then Sally Smith on CBS’ The Edge of Night (she returned to Edge in 1967 to play Katherine Lovell). In 1965, she took on the lead role as Nurse Liz Thorpe on the short-lived The Nurses, which had originally been a primetime series but ended up on ABC’s daytime lineup.
In 1970, she was tapped to play another nurse, Ruth Brent, on the new ABC soap opera All My Children. Fickett, along with other original cast members Susan Lucci (Erica Kane), Ray MacDonnell (Joe Martin; like Fickett, MacDonnell had also starred on Edge as Phil Capice), and Ruth Warrick (Phoebe Tyler), brought the town of Pine Valley, Pennsylvania to life and gave meaning to creator Agnes Nixon’s words.
For the next 25 years, Fickett’s Ruth Brent Martin was the wife, mother, friend and confidant that became the foundation for AMC and its characters. "There has to be some core around which other people disintegrate and come together again," Fickett said in a 1995 story for The Los Angeles Times. "If the place were in chaos all the time, you wouldn't have some place to bounce off of. They've had problems — Ruth was raped, and she had an affair — but viewers want to believe that there is a core."
Fickett’s on-screen marriage to Ray MacDonnell’s Dr. Joe Martin was a staple of AMC, but in real life, the actress was twice divorced, first from James Congdon and then businessman Jay Leonard Scheer. In 1979, she married her third husband, Allen Fristoe, an Emmy-winning soap director who worked on The Edge of Night, One Life to Live, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light. Fickett left AMC in the mid-90s to take care of an ailing Fristoe, who died in 2008.
Fickett is survived by daughter Bronwyn "Anne" Congdon and son Kenyon Congdon, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.