Jan Clayton

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Jan Clayton
Jan Clayton and Lassie 1955.JPG
Clayton with Pal in Lassie (1955)
Born(1917-08-26)August 26, 1917
DiedAugust 28, 1983(1983-08-28) (aged 66)
Resting placeFairview Cemetery, Tularosa, New Mexico
Years active1935–1981
(m. 1938; div. 1943)

Robert Lerner
(m. 1946; div. 1958)

(m. 1966; div. 1968)

Jan Clayton (August 26, 1917 – August 28, 1983) was a film, musical theater, and television actress. She starred in the popular 1950s TV series Lassie.

Born near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the only child of two schoolteachers, Clayton started singing by age four.


Clayton was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starlet in the early 1940s, appearing in several films, none of them particularly notable, except for an unbilled role in 1948 as a singing inmate in The Snake Pit. She appeared in the role of Julie Jordan in the original 1945 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic Carousel. Clayton can be heard on the original cast recordings of both Carousel (1945) and the 1946 Broadway revival of Kern's 1927 musical play Show Boat.[1] The Show Boat album was the first American production of the show to be recorded with its original cast.

In May 1954, Clayton guest-starred in ABC's sitcom Where's Raymond?, starring Ray Bolger as a song-and-dance man, Raymond Wallace. She played Francine Tremont, an actress and wife of a banker. In the story-line, Francine is in town to make a special appearance with Bolger.[citation needed]

In 1954, Clayton was one of the many guest stars in a television spectacular tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, The General Foods 25th Anniversary Show, which featured all the then-surviving stars (except Alfred Drake) of all the classic Broadway musicals that the team had written (1943–1954). Clayton and John Raitt, in full makeup and costume, performed "If I Loved You" (also known as the Bench Scene) from Carousel. It was the first opportunity for millions of viewers to see a scene from the musical, since none of the film versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals had yet been released.[citation needed] Clayton during this period also played herself in an appearance on Peter Lawford's short-lived NBC sitcom Dear Phoebe.

While starring in Show Boat, Clayton met Robert Lerner, an heir to the women's clothing shops bearing his name. They were married and moved to California, where Lerner attended Loyola Law School and Clayton concentrated on mothering. "We had three children in three years", she said in a 1976 interview with People magazine. "Then came Lassie"; "I took it because I was dying to work."[2]

Clayton and George Cleveland in Lassie, 1954.

Clayton became known to TV audiences as the mother of Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig) on the television series Lassie (aka Jeff's Collie in syndication re-runs). Clayton played the first four seasons of Lassie, from September 1954 to December 1957, as Ellen Miller, a war widow living on her father-in-law's farm with her preteen son, Jeff, and her late husband's cantankerous old father, Gramps (played by the Canadian-born George Cleveland).

Clayton brought her extensive acting experience on Broadway to the Lassie series, portraying in her character Ellen the traits of a loving mother with a wide range of heartfelt emotions ranging from sorrow and tragedy to great comedic relief. There were only a few times in Lassie when Clayton exhibited her impressive singing talents, most notably in the episode "The Gypsys" (Season 2, Ep. 15) in which she sang the song "Marushka".

Despite Lassie doing well with the TV audiences, Tommy Rettig sought release from his contract in the popular series' fourth season. Clayton quit the production as well at that time. "My home life was being absolutely wrecked," she explained. "I had four children and a husband, and I was always working".[2]

The sudden death of George Cleveland hastened the departure of the remaining cast. In the episode "Transition", Ellen and Jeff start a new life in the city after selling the farm to the Martin family (co-starring Cloris Leachman and Jon Shepodd) and giving Lassie to little Timmy Martin (played by child actor Jon Provost). Clayton appeared in only one more Lassie episode after those cast changes. In "Timmy's Family", broadcast originally in December 1957, she guest-starred in a supporting role to Lassie's new family.

Following her departure from Lassie, Clayton in 1959 starred in a TV pilot called The Jan Clayton Show, a sitcom in which she portrayed a college English teacher. She produced and starred the next year in The Brown Horse, another proposed series about a woman trying to pay for her daughter's college tuition by working in a San Francisco restaurant. Then, in 1961, she again starred in a comedy pilot based on Bess Streeter Aldrich's book Cheers for Miss Bishop. None of those three pilots was ever "picked up" or purchased by a sponsor for production as a weekly series.

Clayton also performed in the 1961 episode "The Prairie Story" on NBC's Wagon Train. The episode, written by Jean Holloway, examines how the harsh prairie causes havoc in the lives of some of the women on the wagon train. Robert Horton starred in this episode, which aired three months after the death of Ward Bond.

In the 1962 episode "St. Louis Woman" on NBC's The Tall Man, Clayton performed in the role of Janet Harper, a widow engaged to Tom Davis ( Canadian-born Russ Conway), a friend of Sheriff Pat Garrett (Barry Sullivan). While Tom is away from Lincoln, New Mexico, the setting of The Tall Man, on a cattle drive, Janet begins to show a romantic interest in Garrett. Roger Mobley appears in this episode as David Harper, Janet's young son.

In "The Man Who Wouldn't Die", a 1967 episode of the syndicated series Death Valley Days, Clayton was cast as the Margaret Wilbarger, the sister of Texas pioneer Josiah Wilbarger, who lived for 11 years after being scalped by the Comanche. Don Collier played Wilbarger, for whom Wilbarger County, Texas, is named, along with Wilbarger's brother.

Clayton was posthumously inducted into the New Mexico Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2012.

Personal life[edit]

Clayton's first husband was western actor Russell Hayden. The couple married in 1938 and had one daughter, Sandra Jane Hayden, who was born in 1940 but died at the age of 16 in an automobile accident on September 22, 1956. While driving her mother's Cadillac, Sandra ran through a stop sign and collided with another car. Prior to her daughter's tragic death, Clayton had divorced Russell Hayden in 1943. Three years later she married Robert Lerner, an attorney and brother of famed Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Their marriage, which ended in 1958, produced two daughters and a son: Robin (b. 1948), Karen (b. 1949), and Joe (b. 1950). Clayton married for a third and final time in 1966 to pianist and film/television composer George Greeley.[citation needed]


In the 1970s Clayton began receiving treatment for her alcoholism. "My drinking got worse after my daughter died," she explained in her 1976 People interview. "Before that I was a social drinker. But even then after a few drinks I'd get the sillies, then the cries and finally the meanies." She joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1970 and helped counsel other alcoholics on how to reclaim their lives. Every Thursday she worked as a volunteer answering the phone for the Alcoholism Council of Greater Los Angeles, where she later became a board member in the organization.[2]


Jan Clayton died of cancer in West Hollywood, California, on August 28, 1983, just two days after her 66th birthday. Her ashes are buried next to the gravesite of her father at Fairview Cemetery in Tularosa, New Mexico.


Year Title Role Notes
1938 Sunset Trail Dorrie Marsh
1938 In Old Mexico Anita Gonzalez
1939 The Llano Kid Lupita Sandoval
1940 The Showdown Sue Willard
1940 Flight Angels Jane Morrow
1940 Father Is a Prince Connie Bower
1941 Six-Gun Gold Penny Blanchard
1942 The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe Poe's Young Mother Uncredited
1945 This Man's Navy Cathey Cortland
1948 The Snake Pit Singing Inmate
1949 The Wolf Hunters Renée


  1. ^ "Internet Broadway Database". ibdb.com. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c "Jan Clayton's Life, Like a Lassie TV Show, Has Had Its Dramas, but the Ending Is of Course Happy".

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