“Punch Lady” with a punch…

L-R Torrey Anne Cook, Fred Savage, & Vanessa Brown in a scene from "Little Debbie"

L-R Torrey Anne Cook, Fred Savage, & Vanessa Brown in a scene from The Wonder Years episode  “Little Debbie”

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). vanessa_brownShe 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 Itchlater 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 1953.851-1

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…

7 thoughts on ““Punch Lady” with a punch…

  1. Mark Knowles

    The head shot a Punch Lady/Vanessa Brown was a dead ringer for Ingrid Bergman when she was younger. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Vanessa, and she’s got TWO stars on Hollywood Blvd’s walk of fame. Amazing!

    Reply
  2. Susan Beacham

    This was so touching. She seemed so happy in the picture in your story. I found myself comforted by that image. We just need to work harder in noticing the less obvious, inner beauty of people. Noted.

    Reply
  3. ken king

    you all but say directly that your being unaware that she’d been a big deal explains your not striking up a conversation. worse than shallow, that’s cynical and ugly. it implies, among other things, that any conversation you’d have struck up with her on Being aware of her status would have been undertaken for cynical, ugly reasons.

    typical writer. a scheming brain brain and a peanut shell soul, as bukowski put it. in other words, one that’s weak and afraid, not to mention blind; you looked at her and saw an anonymous, meaningless old woman, unimportant to you because – you presumed – valueless to your career (talk about pulling a rock; she could have told you everything you’re dying to know about a Lost World).

    your story leaves unmentioned whether you learned anything from this experience. are you Now – today – looking past appearances (such as wrinkles and other things you find boring and unpleasant) in order to see blazing inner lights?

    wait; don’t answer that.

    Reply
    1. Mark B. Perry Post author

      Ken, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Apparently my story didn’t land with you in the spirit it was intended. What I was trying (and apparently failed) to articulate, was the regret at not having engaged Miss Brown in conversation after learning she had once played Jane in a Tarzan film, as I missed a chance to learn a bit more about Old Hollywood and Broadway from someone who had seen it first hand. It was not about adding “value” to my career, and certainly had nothing to do with her age or appearance or my finding anyone “boring and unpleasant”, and more to do with my simply being a fan and student of classic cinema. And yes, I did learn something: everyone has a story, and they don’t have to involve “blazing inner lights” to be engaging. I’m sorry you read nefarious motives between the lines, as there certainly were none.

      Reply

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