The cleansing of hands is one of the historic themes of Western drama—from Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth to Palmolive Liquid’s Madge the Manicurist. The new bridge over those troubled waters is actress Jan Miner. Playing Madge TV spots since 1965 at $100,000-plus a year has enabled her to prove herself, she exults, as “almost every one of Shakespeare’s female character roles,” not to mention those of George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams.
Currently Jan is enjoying the few favorable notices as the nurse in a generally disfavored Broadway Circle in the Square revival of Romeo and Juliet. At 59, she’s a resilient lady, four times wed. (“In my day,” she observes drolly, “when you got laid, you got married.”)
Miner’s estimable 43-year career in stage, radio and TV has been subsidized by the more than 1,000 commercials she’s made for 100 sponsors. As Palmolive’s snippy manicurist, she has pushed the detergent to second in the market. Every couple of months, Miner tapes four or five fresh commercials and junkets abroad to dub the foreign versions (she’s Tilly in West Germany, Françoise in France, Marissa in Finland). Palmolive has renewed her contract for five more years, making her the longest-lived pitchwoman in TV history.
For all her pink-collar brassiness on TV, Jan is a Boston Brahmin, the daughter of an orthodontist father and artist mother who sent her to proper Beaver Country Day and to art and stage design school. She started acting at 16 at Boston’s Copley Theatre, playing maternal parts. “I was no Hepburn,” concedes Miner, who at 5’4″, 130 pounds (down from 150) calls herself “a perfect size 12.”
In the 1940s Miner played Delia Street on the original Perry Mason radio dramas and later, as Julie Erickson on the soaper Hilltop House, won radio’s best actress award nine straight years. Along the way, she and such radio colleagues as Art Carney and Jack Lemmon “saw television coming along, so we all went to acting class to learn to move our bodies.” She graduated into TV soaps and played Dustin Hoffman’s raucous mother in Lenny (but only after ascertaining that the role would not embarrass Palm-olive). The sponsor had sportingly accepted her record of four husbands. The first spouse, whom she married at 17, was the singer at her deb party. Then followed a sports announcer and an actor whom she left after he sold off 100 acres of her family’s land in New Hampshire. Unable to have her own children, Jan says she “married men who had them,” and wound up with five stepkids along the way.
Miner’s fourth husband, set decorator (Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams) Richard Merrell, 52, is the one who has lasted—13 years so far. The two of them live within commuting range of Broadway in a 240-year-old farmhouse near Bethel, Conn. The consummate method actress (she studied under Lee Strasberg), Jan is still perfecting Madge’s technique and has accumulated nearly enough credits at a local school for her beautician’s license. When her fans stop her on streets with shouts of “Hey, Madge, let’s see your nails,” Miner good-naturedly shows them off in pristine condition. As it happens, Madge—er, Miner—owns a dishwasher.