Georgia Engel: Reflecting Joy

We continue our series to honor television stars who passed away in 2019 by looking at the career of Georgia Engel.

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Georgia was born in Washington DC in 1948 as Georgia Bright Engel. Although she attended several high schools, she graduated from the Academy of the Washington Ballet. Her father was an admiral, and perhaps her family landed in Hawaii, but she went on to earn a theater degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

In 1969, Engel would move to New York City. She was in an off-Broadway production, Lend an Ear and as Minnie Fay in Hello Dolly! for a year. When she was appearing in The House of Blue Leaves, Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Grant Tinker saw her performance one night.

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She was cast in The Mary Tyler Moore Show soon after, appearing in 57 episodes as Georgette Baxter, Ted’s girlfriend, and later, wife. Mary described the character as a cross between Stan Laurel and Marilyn Monroe. Georgette was devoted to Ted. She received two Emmy nominations for her role on the classic show.

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Betty White played Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and when White received a show of her own, The Betty White Show, in 1977, she brought Engel in as part of the new series as Mitzi Maloney. The plot featured White as a middle-aged actress who gets the starring role in a police series, Undercover Woman. Unfortunately, she soon learns her ex-spouse, whom she calls “old pickle puss” is the director. Mitzi is her naïve girlfriend and roommate.

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In 1980 she joined the cast of Goodtime Girls as Loretta Smoot. Set in 1942, the show was about a group of women who shared a small apartment in the Coolidge Boarding House. Loretta was described as a middle-aged war bride waiting for her husband to come back home from the war.

Like so many well-known television stars, Engel did her duty, appearing on The Love Boat (4 episodes) and Fantasy Island (5 episodes).

In 1983 she took on the role of Susan Elliott on Jennifer Slept Here. Ann Jillian starred in this show as Jennifer Farrell. Farrell, a popular movie actress who was run over by an ice cream truck in 1963, had lived in the house. Twenty years later, the Elliott family moves in. Jennifer haunts the place but can only be seen by the Susan’s teenage son.

Between 1991 and 1997 she made 20 appearances on Coach as Shirley Burleigh. Shirley’s husband is the athletic director who clashes with Coach Hayden Fox.

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From 2003-2005 she was cast as Amy’s mother, Pat MacDougall, on Everybody Loves Raymond. This role would reward her with three Emmy nominations. It’s hard to picture a better couple of wacky parents than Engel and Fred Willard!

The soap opera Passions beckoned her in 2007 where she made several portrayals of Esmeralda.

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On The Office

In 2012 she joined the cast of The Office as Irene, an older woman being aided by Erin.  

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The years 2012-2015 found her working with Betty White once again as Mamie, Elka’s (White) best friend in Hot in Cleveland. In the fourth season, the two friends run an illegal pharmacy.

Although Georgia was busy with television, she also found time to get back on the stage. In 2001, she toured with Barbara Eden in the female version of The Odd Couple. She appeared on Broadway in The Drowsy Chaperone with Sutton Foster and Edward Hibbert. She appeared in various productions at The Muny Theater in St. Louis between 2004-2010. 2005 found her playing Agnes Gooch in Mame; 2007 was Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!; 2009 was Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man.

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The Drowsy Chaperone

In 2015 she was cast in an off-Broadway play, John. Engel won a 2016 Obie for Distinguished Performance by an Actress for her role. Following that play, Engel starred in Gotta Dance, a musical playing in Chicago.

Georgia passed away in Princeton, New Jersey in April of this year. We don’t know what her cause of death was. She was a member of the Christian Scientists. A friend of hers, Joe Quilty, told the New York Times that because of her religious beliefs, she did not contact any doctors.

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Following Engel’s death, Betty White said she was “one of a kind and the absolute best.” During a 2012 TV Land interview, White commented on her relationship with Georgia: “You don’t get a chance very often in your life to meet a friend like Georgia, let alone an actress that you’re working with, and to suddenly find pure gold.  That’s a privilege.”

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Perhaps it’s best to end with Georgia Engel’s view of her career. Despite her being typecast as a bit of a ditzy blonde, she said, “Although I play silly parts, in order for others to share in the laughter, I think it’s important to have a heart that’s full of joy and gratitude. Joy is a very holy thing and we can never own it. We can only reflect it.”

Her lengthy and varied television career definitely reflected that joy.

Write On!

Happy Monday.  It’s National Encourage a Young Writer Day.  I love to encourage writers of all ages.  If you’re a writer, you know the two golden rules of writing.  (1) Write what you know and (2) Be original.  With those two qualifiers, one would think there would be a myriad of great shows out there about writers.  Not so.  It took a lot of exploring on my part to come up with 12 shows about writers in the past 70 years!

If writers are writing what they know, it seems writers know much more about incompetent parents, complex medical surgeries, and dating bachelors than they do about writing and writers.

Don’t get me started on being original. Unfortunately, any viewer knows that when one genre show succeeds, the next year will feature ten more just like it;  hence, the number of medical and police dramas currently on the schedule.  This doesn’t hold true anywhere else in life.  No grocer says avocados are so popular, let’s replace the oranges and apples with them.  No radio station decides to play the top five songs to the exclusion of the other songs.  That being said, I’ll jump off my soapbox before ranting about how the shows on today’s schedule are either amazingly written or not worth the time it takes to turn on the television. So, let’s look at shows about writers.

Apartment 3-C. In 1949 John and Barbara Gay played themselves.  Living in New York City, he was a writer.  The 15-minute show went off the air after one season. They moved to California where they raised their family and spent 66 years together. As far as I can tell, neither of them acted again, but John went on to be a prolific scriptwriter.

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Young and Gay/The Girls. Debuting in 1950 as Young and Gay, this series was based on an autobiographical novel written by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. CBS bought the rights. After the first two episodes, the name was changed to The Girls.  The premise of the show was that two Bryn Mawr graduates come to Greenwich Village after spending time in Europe, trying to develop careers as an actress and a writer.  After a few more episodes, their acting career ended when the show was cancelled.

Dear Phoebe. In 1954, ex-college professor Bill Hastings, played by Peter Lawford, decided he wanted to try his hand at journalism.  The option he receives is becoming Phoebe Goodman, providing advice to the lovelorn. Ironically, his girlfriend, Mickey (Marcia Henderson), is the paper’s sports writer. After one season, they both received advice to seek new work when the show was cancelled.

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My Sister Eileen. It would take half a decade before another show about a writer was produced. In 1960, My Sister Eileen aired.  The concept will sound vaguely familiar.  It’s based on a book and two movies about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village wanting to be an actress and a writer. The sisters were played by Elaine Stritch and Shirley Boone. The only memorable thing about the show was the pairing of Rose Marie and Richard Deacon who went on to try their hand at another show a year later called The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hands down, this was the best comedy to debut about a writer.  It was also the longest running show, going off the air five years because the cast wanted to quit while the show was still successful. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is the head writer of the Alan Brady Show, creating scripts with Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam). Mel (Richard Deacon) is the long-suffering producer. This is one of the first shows to concentrate on work life. We get to see what goes on behind the scenes of a comedy/variety show. While Rob, Sally, and Buddy have lives outside the office, they are somewhat married to their work. Sally is always hunting for Mr. Right.  Buddy deals with more comedy at home because of his not-so-bright wife Pickles, although it’s obvious he is in love with Sally. Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) are both confident and intelligent adults and insecure parents, raising their son Richie (Larry Mathews) in New Rochelle. The show won an Emmy its first year and never left the top 20, producing 157 of the best-written sitcom episodes ever created.

Window on Main Street. Mention the name Robert Young, and most viewers fondly recall Father Knows Best or Marcus Welby.  In this 1961 show, Robert Young plays Cameron Garrett Brooks, an author.  After his son and wife pass away, he returns to his small home town of Millsburg to write about the town’s citizens. It must have been a very small town with few people to write about, because the series was cancelled after one year.

The New Loretta Young Show. Loretta Young starred in several shows using her name so it gets a bit confusing, but in this 1962 version, she plays Christine Massey, a children’s author and widow with 7 children. Living in Connecticut, she decides to get a job with Manhattan Magazine.  However, after meeting the editor she falls in love and marries him. Perhaps the network had a policy banning inter-company marriages, because the show was cancelled after six months.

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Glynis. In 1963 Glynis Granville (played by Glynis Johns) moved to town. She is an amateur sleuth who solves crimes to have something to write about. Her husband Keith (Keith Andes) is an attorney.  She consults with a former policeman Chick Rogers (George Mathews). The show only lasted three months.  Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of I Love Lucy, apparently forgot this was a different show, airing episodes that were very Lucy-esque.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. In 1968, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies came to the small screen.  Based on Jean Kerr’s book, it was also a movie starring Doris Day about the Nash family.  James (Mark Miller) is a college professor and his wife Joan (Patricia Crowley) is a free-lance writer. The show featured their four sons, two of whom were twins, their large dog, and their housekeeper Martha (Ellen Corby). Faring better than most of our shows, this one lasted two years.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This show about a writer, a widow Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange) who moves into an old house in Schooner Bay in New England, appeared in 1968. The house turns out to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhaney), a captain who built the house in the 1800s. This show was also based on a movie. Captain Gregg is annoyed with the interruption and noise of the new family, but ultimately falls in love with Carolyn. Charles Nelson Reilly plays the Captain’s nephew Claymore Gregg. Dabbs Greer is Noorie Coolidge, the owner of a local lobster restaurant, and Reta Shaw is their housekeeper Martha. The show was on NBC for one year then moved to ABC for one year.  Apparently, CBS declined its turn, so the show was cancelled.

The Debbie Reynolds Show. In 1969, another show produced by Jess Oppenheimer eerily reminiscent of I Love Lucy was on the fall schedule. Jim Thompson (Don Chastain) is a sports writer. His wife Debbie (Debbie Reynolds) is a stay-at-home wife who wants to be a feature writer. Jim discourages her, wanting her to stay home.  Instead of Ethel and Fred, we have her sister Charlotte (Patricia Smith) and her brother-in-law Bob (Tom Bosley).  After one season, the network decided they did not care if  Debbie worked or stayed home and sent the crew packing.

Suddenly Susan. Jump almost thirty years to 1996 and we have another show about a writer, Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields. Susan leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and is forced to ask her ex brother-in-law (Judd Nelson) to hire her back at his magazine.  Most of the show is set in the workplace.  Luis Rivera (Nestor Carbonell), Vicki Groener (Kathy Griffith), and Nana (Barbara Barrie) round out the cast and appear on all the episodes.  (The photo above also includes Andrea Bendewald [the blonde] and David Strickland [laying down] who were in about half the episodes.) The show continued until 2000.

I should mention that because I focused on comedies I did not include Murder She Wrote or Castle, both having long runs of 12 and 8 years respectively. I did not include Everybody Loves Raymond because that show concentrated on his family life, and rarely revealed his writing profession.

I wish I had more encouraging words for writers who wanted to get involved in television.  About the only thing I can tell you, is if you want to develop a successful show around a writer, make it a drama for job security.