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.