As we wind up our What a Character series, it seemed fitting to end with Mabel Albertson, perhaps the most recognizable of our character actors. She is often remembered for playing the mother of well-known characters. Mabel was born in Massachusetts in 1901. Her mother, who was a stock actress, helped support the family by working in a shoe factory. Mabel’s brother Jack would also become a famous actor.
Mabel knew she wanted to get involved in the entertainment business at a young age. When she was 13, she played the piano for $5 a performance. She graduated from the New England School of Speech and Expression.
Albertson began working in stock, vaudeville, and night clubs and appeared with Jimmy Durante. Eventually she moved to California where she became involved with the Pasadena Playhouse where Charles Lane got his start.
Mabel married Austin Ripley, and they had a son in 1926, but their marriage soon dissolved. Mabel decided to pursue a career in film. Although she would have credits for 27 movies during her career, her film career was not what she hoped for. So, she switched gears and tried out radio. During the 1930s, she co-starred with Phil Baker on The Armour Hour and from 1936-37, she was in Dress Rehearsal with Pinky Lee. She also did some writing for the show.
In 1937 Mabel married writer Ken Englund who adopted her son George. He began writing for Paramount Pictures and later would be hired by RKO, Columbia Studios, 20th Century Fox, and The Samuel Goldwyn Company.
Although her husband’s career was made on the big screen, her career really took off when television made its appearance. Her first role on the small screen was on the Chevron Theater in 1952. During the 1950s, she appeared in 21 different shows. Although many of her roles were on the playhouse and theater shows, she also showed up on Burns and Allen, Topper, December Bride, Bachelor Father, Jack Benny, and Have Gun Will Travel. In 1955, she was offered a role in Those Whiting Girls. She played the girls’ mother. The show was on the air until 1957.
Mabel became the “face” of television sitcom mothers. She played Phyllis Stephens, Darrin’s mother on Bewitched and often said “Frank, take me home, I’m getting a sick headache.” Her husband wrote several Bewitched episodes (season 1, episodes 25 and 30).
She played Mabel, Paul Lynde’s mother-in-law on The Paul Lynde Show; she was the mother of Marilyn’s boyfriend on The Munsters, as well as Alice’s mother on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Fans of That Girl will remember her as Don Hollister’s mother, and she was seen on The Andy Griffith Show as Howard Sprague’s mother. Her last mother role was on the New Dick Van Dyke Show as his mom.
Her most successful years were the 1960s when she appeared in 39 television shows, including Perry Mason; Ben Casey; My Three Sons; Hazel; Ozzie and Harriet; The Wild, Wild West; Daniel Boone; Gomer Pyle USMC; Love American Style; and Gunsmoke. A review for her performance on Gunsmoke is posted by jlthornb5110 on imdb.
The review states that her role of Kate Heller is one “of the standout episodes of the series with Miss Mabel Albertson giving what is nothing less than the performance of a lifetime. Beautifully written by Kate Hite, this is a powerful presentation and one in which Albertson truly shines. The climax is absolutely soul shattering and among the most dramatically emotional ever filmed for television. Miss Albertson plays it with a sensitivity and an incredible insight you will never forget. The character of Kate Heller is heartbreaking but quietly strong, a survivor of the psychological brutality of loneliness in the old west and the violence that was part of existence. Mabel Albertson gives the character everything she has within her, brings her to life, and makes her one of the most unforgettable personalities to ever appear on Gunsmoke or any other television series in history.”
She was offered a role as a permanent cast member in The Tom Ewell Show in 1960. The premise of the show is that real estate agent Tom Potter played by Ewell must learn to live in a household of females including his wife, his three girls and his mother-in-law Irene played by Albertson. Even their dog, Mitzi, was a girl. Although Mabel’s brother Jack would be best remembered for his role on Chico and the Man, he appeared on this series with his sister in 1960. The series aired 32 episodes before it was canceled.
I’m not sure where she found time for Broadway during this decade, but she was in The Egg in 1962 and Xmas in Las Vegas in 1965.
While her career began to slow down in the seventies, she was still quite busy, appearing in The Doris Day Show, Ironside, Marcus Welby, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, among others. She appeared in an episode of Arnie with her brother in 1970. She also worked with her daughter-in-law, Cloris Leachman, in the movie Pete and Tillie in 1974.
Her family continued to attract talented actors. Her granddaughter-in-law was actress Sharon Stone.
In 1975, Mabel was forced to retire. Her memory was beginning to fail, and she was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. She passed away from the illness in 1982.
Like Milton Frome, I was both sad and disappointed to learn how little information there was about Mabel Albertson. I thought I would learn more about her working relationships considering she had a fifty-year career and played iconic mother roles on so many well-loved shows.
As we wrap of this edition of What a Character! series, my hope is that you recognize and acknowledge these actors when you see them when tuning in to your favorite classic shows and remember how much they contributed to our television history. Personally, to keep Mabel’s memory alive, I think any time we are having a family situation, I will turn to my husband and whisper, “Frank, take me home, I’m getting a sick headache.”