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.

Trick or Treat???

Tomorrow night is Halloween, and many of you will see ghosts flitting around your neighborhood asking for candy.  If you want to watch ghosts flitting around your television screen, I have some shows for you to consider. To save you some time, I’ll let you know which ones are boo-ring and which are hauntingly good.

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Topper (1953)

This show was based on several stories by Thorne Smith and a movie starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young from 1937. When Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife Henrietta (Lee Patrick) move into their house, Topper becomes aware of three more residents, George and Marian Kerby (real husband and wife Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffries) and a St. Bernard named Neil who tried to save them in a skiing accident during an avalanche. One of the ongoing jokes in the show is that Neil is always drinking alcohol left around the house after getting hooked on the brandy he carried around his neck. The complication is that they are all ghosts, and only Topper can see and hear them.

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Most of the humor comes from their interaction with other people like salesmen or society snobs. Scripts were full of word play and clever dialogue. They would intervene in activities Topper was involved with like his weekly bridge game.  Once he wrote a check for $5 which they changed to $5000. Topper was a bit cheap even though he was VP of the National Security Bank. The ghosts were full of mischief, and we liked them for their fun “spirit.” Being dead, they were fearless.

One of the typical plots happened when Henrietta was in the hospital.  Marion wants to celebrate her birthday with their old friends.  She sends invitations to them from Topper. Topper has no idea people are coming.  The women all make a fuss over him being alone with his wife in the hospital and the party is a bit wild compared to the ones Topper and Henrietta usually host. Of course, Henrietta gets out of the hospital early and arrives with the party in full swing.

Wires, ectoplasm, and the stopping and starting of cameras were used to bring the ghosts to life.

One fact I found surprising was that eleven of the first year’s episodes were written by composer Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer.

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The show began in 1953 with R.J. Reynolds as the sponsor for its Camel cigarettes. The cast was required to smoke in every episode.  In 1955 it was picked up by Standard Brands and moved to ABC.  The next year General Foods sponsored it on NBC where it was cancelled in 1957 after a total of 78 episodes. The show hasn’t aged well because the special effects seem unsophisticated and obvious today. Even so, I would list this as a treat. 

 

 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968)

Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange), a widow, decides to move to Schooner Bay where she can focus on her writing career and raising her family, which consists of Jonathan (Harlen Carraher), Candy (Kellie Flanagan), and a dog Scruffy. She rents the house from Claymore Gregg (Charles Nelson Reilly). The house, Gull Cottage, functioned as another character in the show.  Below on the left is how it appeared in the show; on the right is the show today. The house was actually in Santa Barbara, California nowhere near the water.  We also get to know Noorie Coolidge (Dabbs Greer) who owns the local lobster restaurant.

Carolyn plans to bring in a housekeeper Martha (Reta Shaw), but she doesn’t plan on another household guest, Captain Gregg (Edward Mulhare) (Claymore’s uncle), who lived in the house in the 1800s. Captain Gregg falls in love with Carolyn; he also develops a special relationship with the kids.

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The show was based on a book by R.A. Dick from 1945 and a movie starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison from 1947. The special effects were impressive for the 1960s. When Gregg and came and went, the actors all had to freeze.  Strings and wires were everywhere to help with the other magic parts of the film.

In an interview with Flanagan about her time on the show, she said every show took a week to produce.  She enjoyed her experiences with the series saying that the cast had great actors, “Hope Lange was extremely sweet and kind; Reta was a delight, and Charles Nelson Reilly was hilarious” and it was a happy set to work on.

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The show debuted on NBC where it played the first year. The critics liked it, and Hope Lange received two Emmys for lead actress in a comedy. However, the first year it was up against My Three Sons and Lawrence Welk. The show moved to ABC for a second season but lost its ratings battle to Family Affair. Definitely a treat.

 

The Ghost Busters (1975)

Basically, this was a slap-stick comedy reprising the roles of Corporal Agarn and Sergeant O’Rourke from F-Troop as paranormal detectives.  Larry Storch is Eddie Spencer, Forest Tucker is Kong, and Bob Burns is their assistant and chauffeur Tracy, who just happens to be a gorilla. The team battles ghosts of legendary fiends like Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Werewolf.

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An unseen boss, Zero, would give them their assignment and then the tape would explode.  Their headquarters was a run-down office and they had to use a pay phone nearby. Every week they were taken to the same castle to defeat a new foe. They always used their Dematerializer to send the specters back to the “great beyond.” Somehow, they convinced Jim Backus to guest star in one of the episodes.

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Burns was hired because the producers decided it would be cheaper to hire an actor who already had a gorilla suit. Burns is best known for Bob’s Basement, where he displays his Hollywood science fiction and horror collectibles.  Seen on Saturday mornings, the show produced by Filmation only lasted for 15 episodes.   Definitely a trick. 

 

Jennifer Slept Here (1983)

The premise of this show is that famous actress Jennifer Farrell (Ann Jillian) was chasing down an ice cream truck in 1963 when it backed up and accidentally ran her over. George Elliot (Brandon Maggart) was the lawyer who handled her affairs after she died.  He decided to buy her home for his wife (Georgia Engel).

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What the parents don’t realize is that Jennifer still lives here, and only their son Joey (John Navin Jr.) can see and communicate with her. The show was sexy because Jennifer was a Marilyn Monroe type and silly because she acted like a second mother to Joey. The series was told mainly from a 13-year-old’s point of view.

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The show had decent ratings but went up against The Dukes of Hazard and Webster, so it was cancelled after 13 episodes, one for each year of Joey’s life. I’d classify this one as a trick. 

 

Nearly Departed (1989)

When the Dooleys (Stuart Pankin and Wendy Schaal) purchase a new home, Grant and Claire Pritchard (Eric Idle and Caroline McWilliams) area already living there since they had been the previous owners. However, they are no longer alive. With a bit of a different twist, only Grandpa (Henderson Forsythe) can see and hear them. The Dooleys have a son Derek (Jay Lambert), and the ghosts would try to help him with problems like bullies to repay the Dooleys for giving them a place to live, even though they didn’t know they were doing so.

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The critics were all over the place on this one. Joan Hanauer, a UPI feature writer, wrote “Nearly Departed is a fast, pleasant sitcom, and the Pritchards make you believe one thing you can take with you is your sense of humor.” Howard Rosenberg from the LA Times, wrote “ ‘Nearly Departed’ is a zero. A mishmash of ‘Topper’ and ‘Beetlejuice,’ the NBC comedy is worse than bad in its premier at 8:30 . . . making such worthy comic actors as Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Stuart Pankin look worse than bad in the process.”

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I guess most viewers agreed with Rosenberg because the show was gone after only six episodes.  I have to give this one a trick. 

 

 

The Haunted Hathaways (2013)

This show is a 21st century Brady Brunch without the best part:  Alice. A single mom Michelle Hathaway (Ginifer King) and her two girls, gymnast Taylor (Amber Montana) and Frankie (Breanna Yde) make the move from New York to New Orleans and open a bakery, Pie Squared.

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However, when they move into their new house, they find three ghosts who had taken up residence:  Ray Preston (Chico Benymon), a saxophone player, and his sons, well-mannered Miles (Curtis Harris) and rude and sarcastic Louie (Benjamin “Lil P-Nut” Flores Jr.). The two families learn to work together using ghostly powers and human intellect to solve problems together. This show lasted two seasons on Nickelodeon.  I would not call this a trick or a treat; it’s like the house that gives out apples, not bad but don’t go out of your way to check it out. 

 

I would recommend picking up The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or Topper DVDs to watch as you give goodies to the little goblins ringing your doorbell.  Better yet, get the original movies.  It’s always a treat to watch Cary Grant and Rex Harrison. While you are sitting around a bonfire this month, you can also read the original books and decide which version you like best.  Happy Halloween.

The White Stuff

It’s hard to imagine anyone with a more versatile or longer-lasting occupation than Betty White.  During her career, she’s starred in 12 sitcoms, had recurring roles on 17 shows, and appeared in another 45 series. In addition, she was in 14 movies; 18 movies made for television; and 305 different shows as herself, including 326 episodes of Match Game, 85 guest spots on the $10,000 Pyramid, 52 appearances on Entertainment Tonight, and 40 times on To Tell the Truth.

Born January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, Betty was an only child.  Her family moved to California when she was quite young. Her original goal was to become a Park Ranger, but that career was closed to women at that time.  She started her entertainment career in radio, because she was told she was not photogenic. When World War II broke out, she joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was briefly married to Dick Barker, a pilot; they married and divorced in 1945.  In 1947 she married Lane Allan, an agent, but they divorced in 1949.

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Her career took a major leap in 1952 when Life with Elizabeth was picked up by the network. Betty was the star and producer of the show from 1952-1955. Her show gave her total control both behind and in front of the camera.  She was the first woman to produce a sitcom. She was only 28 years old and living with her parents when this opportunity presented itself.

During the 1950s Betty would also star in the sitcom Date with the Angels, as Vickie Angel.  Vickie and her husband, an insurance salesmen, involved their friends and neighbors in a variety of comic situations. She also appeared on variety shows such as Jack Paar Tonight, as well as The Betty White Show, a talk show.  In 1956, she began an alliance with the Tournament of Roses parade which she co-hosted for 19 years.

The 1960s found her starring in her first movie, Advise and Consent in 1962, portraying Kansas senator Elizabeth Ames Adams. She also began her long partnership with game shows, earning the title, “First Lady of Game Shows.” It was when she appeared on Password that she met her third husband, Allen Ludden, who was the host.  They married in 1963 and were happily living life until his death in 1981. (Note: Wisconsin claims Allen Ludden because he was born in Mineral Point in 1917.)

In the 1970s, Betty re-entered the television series realm.  She guest-starred on the Mary Tyler Moore Show during its fourth season as television host Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker. She was such a hit that she became a regular for the rest of the series’ run. In 1977, she and Georgia Engel starred in The Betty White Show (not to be confused with the talk show in the 1950s) which only lasted one season. Because of her affiliation with the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Tournament of Roses replaced her as host, and she then took on the task of co-hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade for ten years.

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In the 1980s, at age 60, Betty’s career continued to steamroll. She became a regular on Mama’s Family, which aired from 1983-86. In 1985, she accepted the role of Rose Nyland on The Golden Girls.  Originally slated for the part of Blanche, it was suggested that Rue McClanahan and Betty switch roles to keep from becoming typecast.  The role of Rose Nyland kept her busy through 1993.  Golden Girls ended production in 1992; the next season, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White reprised their roles for one season on Golden Palace.

During the 1990s, Betty continued her television work. She had a regular role on Maybe This Time where she played Shirley Wallace, a much-married woman, who pushes her daughter, recently divorced, into a relationship, when she just wants to run the family coffee shop and avoid dating altogether. She also was in all 30 episodes of Ladies Man, where she again plays the mother of the main character. He is trying to raise a daughter from his first marriage and a daughter from his current marriage while dealing with a wife, and ex-wife, and a mother.

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As the new century turned over in 2000, at 78, Betty just continued to add to her acting credits.  She had regular roles on Boston Legal and The Bold and the Beautiful.  She also starred in Hot in Cleveland for its entire five-year run. She continued appearing on a variety of television shows during that decade.

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During her career, she was nominated for 21 primetime Emmys and won five. She also won 2 daytime Emmys. She is the only woman to be nominated in every comedy category. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Betty loves animals and is an advocate for many animal associations including the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation, and the African Wildlife Foundation. She received the Humane Award in 1987 and had a plaque installed near the gorilla exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo to commemorate her work there.

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It’s hard to know what she will attempt next. She was the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live which she did in 2010. She appeared on the original Tonight Show with Jack Paar and has appeared with Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. She has been on the Howard Stern Show, the Simpsons, and one of my favorites, Madame’s Place. She has guest starred in both comedies and dramas. She produced Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, where senior citizens played pranks on younger people.

Considering her real name is Betty, not Elizabeth, it’s ironic that her first television role was in Life with Elizabeth and her first movie was portraying Elizabeth Ames Adams.

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At 95, how has she kept so young?  If you ask her co-stars from Hot in Cleveland, they will tell you that she survives on hot dogs, French fries, Diet Coke, and red licorice.  Who am I to argue?

One of her best awards came in 2010 when she was made an Honorary Forest Ranger.  Considering that in 1940 that field was closed to her, when she received her honorary title, one-third of forest rangers were women.

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When asked about why she loves performing, Betty said, “To be able to talk to that camera—the camera became your best friend. You’re looking into that little camera lens and they’re looking into your soul, because they’re right into your eyes. You can’t be phony. You can’t fake it.”

No one has ever accused Betty White of being a fake or a phony.  Everyone she comes in contact with seems to love her. The camera was her best friend, but we all became her friends through those camera portrayals.

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What a wonderful personality.  What a wonderful career.  What a wonderful legacy.