Cissy Wellman's movie debut was a family affair
She got cast alongside her brother because the movie’s star liked working with real siblings.
Cissy Wellman is best known to classic TV fans for playing Sissy Tucker on The Waltons, and memorably marrying Yancy Tucker in the sixth season episode "The First Casualty." (Plus, marrying Robert Donner in the real world too.)
But her career began way before that in the Sixties, with a bit role on the short-lived TV series The Lieutenant, and then a slightly bigger role on the big screen as a nurse in the 1964 Jerry Lewis movie The Disorderly Orderly.
When Wellman got cast in the Lewis movie, though, it wasn’t just because of her sweet smile and bright eyes.
At the time, Lewis liked casting real siblings to play parts in his movies. And critics said it had become a pattern. Case in point: in his other movie from 1964, The Patsy, Ed Wynn appeared alongside his two sons Keenan and Ned.
The Pittsburgh Press reported about Lewis’ "family pattern" of casting continued when Lewis cast Cissy as a nurse and her brother William Wellman, Jr. as a doctor, just because they were siblings.
Cissy’s brother William had been acting for a long time before his sister started.
Named for his very famous director father William Wellman — also known as "Wild Bill," the man behind the original A Star Is Born and the very first Best Picture Oscar winner Wings — the younger William got his first role in one of his dad’s movies from 1945, This Man’s Navy.
Through the Fifties and Sixties, leading up to the Jerry Lewis movie, Cissy’s brother appeared in movies and in hit Westerns like Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Have Gun – Will Travel.
At that same time, his sister Cissy began quietly making a name for herself as a choreographer.
She was her mother’s daughter.
While Cissy started tapping professionally as part of Nick Castle’s dancers, her mom Dorothy Coonan Wellman was a Busby Berkeley dancer on Broadway.
It was dancing for Nick Castle that got Cissy interested in acting, and her very next movie role after The Disorderly Orderly was called Red Line 7000, a Howard Hawks film about racecar drivers. In that movie, she played a waitress, but she also choreographed a Watusi dance number.
In an interview with the Traverse City Record-Eagle in 1965, Wellman said any time she wasn’t acting, she was either taking a dance class or dancing at home.
Both Cissy and William, brother and sister, continued acting steadily into the 2000s, with him playing his final role in a 2007 Star Trek movie and her most recently appearing in a 2022 rom-com.
But for Cissy, she also never stopped dancing.
In 2009, she joined The Born To Act Players, sharing her joy of dancing and acting by training improv students with special needs.
Cissy has just always thought everybody should make dancing part of their everyday routine.
"If I had my way, a dancing class would be a compulsory part of our education," Wellman said.
Wellman was so fixated on helping her dance students become more flexible that she even invented a 3-minute exercise that she said did the job to keep her in shape.
In the Sixties, she sold pamphlets describing her four-in-one exercise, which she said worked core muscles in the stomach and back, as well as the legs, arms and neck. That’s every muscle you need to stretch to be in shape to bust a move, so "Don’t say you can’t find time," Wellman said.
If you’re interested in learning more about the exercise, she described it in detail in the article:
"You begin by lying on your back on the floor with your arms at your sides. You come up with straight spine, leading with your chin so that your neck keeps in line with your back. When you are in a sitting position, your arms should be extended at your sides."
"Then you relax and bend forward with your head up and try to touch your chin to your knees. Keep your arms extended to your sides with your fingers and palms out. You should feel a good pull all the way from your fingertips to your shoulders."
"While still bent over, bring your heels up from the floor for a strong pull in back of your knees and thighs. With a little bouncing movement, give a push, bring your feet down. Return to the sitting position and then back to lying. Repeat twice."