April 26, 2014 – During my second season on the hit show The Wonder Years, I pitched an idea about bringing back Paul Pfeiffer’s little sister Debbie (Torrey Anne Cook), who had been introduced in season two as having a monster crush on the show’s lead, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). The result was one of my favorite episodes that I had the privilege of writing. The story involved Kevin getting roped in against his will to take little Debbie Pfeiffer to her cotillion dance, when all he really wants to do is hang out with the guys at a football game and ogle the head cheerleader, Deena Delgado. I wasn’t involved in the casting of the guest characters, but was on set all day at a country club out in Malibu where the dance sequences were filmed. One of the adult supporting roles was simply called “Punch Lady” in the script, and she had, as I recall, two, maybe three lines. “My, what a fine catch,” was one of them, directed to Debbie regarding her date Kevin, and the other was something like, “Decided to sit this one out?” directed to Kevin as he bolts to get away from Debbie’s blind hero worship. The “day player” we’d cast as the Punch Lady was a woman named Vanessa Brown, and she did a fine job with her small part. During a break in shooting, I overheard one of the Assistant Directors mentioning that Ms. Brown had once played Jane in one of the many Tarzan movies back in the day. I remember thinking that was kind of cool, but thought nothing more of it even as she was wrapped for the day after her work was completed, just another actor with whom I’d briefly crossed paths.
It wasn’t until quite recently, with all the renewed interest in The Wonder Years resulting from the upcoming StarVista Entertainment/Time-Life release of the entire series on DVD, that I bothered to Google Ms. Brown and discovered her rather astonishing history―a career that resulted in two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for her TV work, the other for motion pictures). She had fled the Nazis with her parents in 1937, coming to the states where she pursued her love of acting. Apparently, she had a very high IQ that resulted in two years as a junior panelist on the TV game show Quiz Kids. As for acting, not only did she indeed play Jane in 1950’s Tarzan and the Slave Girl opposite Lex Barker, she originated the role of “The Girl” on Broadway in The Seven Year Itch―later famously played by Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film version. She was also cast as Babette in Lillian Helmann’s Watch on the Rhine on Broadway and later appeared in one of my favorite films: Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and The Beautiful (1952). In short, our “Punch Lady” had been something of a big deal, even making the cover of Life magazine in 1953.
According to IMDB and Wikipedia, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years before her work on The Wonder Years, and a year after her diagnosis, her home had been destroyed in the 1987 Whittier earthquake. But I didn’t know any of this about the lady who had two lines in one of my episodes. Because even though my interest had been piqued by the tidbit about her role in a Tarzan movie―a role that turned out to be nothing compared to the rest of her career―I hadn’t bothered to strike up a conversation, despite the ample opportunities to engage in small talk during the rather tedious process of filming. As a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, this was one of my biggest missed opportunities, and one of my deepest regrets.
Vanessa Brown passed away May 21, 1999 at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. The “Punch Lady” is listed as the final role of her career. Stay tuned…