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.

I Know That Girl From Somewhere: The Career of Meredith MacRae

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Meredith MacRae is one of those actresses almost everyone recognizes but are not always sure why they remember her. Perhaps it was one of her 14 movies. Then again it could be the two television shows she had a regular role on or one of the other 18 shows she appeared on. It might be from a game show where she was a a panelist or as a singer on a variety show or one of her many commercials. Some folks saw her talk show in LA. She also worked hard for a variety of charities and traveled around the country speaking on alcoholism. Viewers might not be exactly sure how they know her, but everyone realizes they liked her. She had that friendly and caring quality.

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MacRae was born on May 30, 1944, in Houston, Texas on a military base where her father was stationed. Her father, Gordon MacRae was a big star, featured in Roger & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and Carousel. Her mother, Sheila MacRae was an actress and comedienne, appearing as Jackie Gleason’s wife on The Honeymooners.

Meredith began her acting career at a young age, receiving a part in By the Light of the Silvery Moon in 1953, which starred her father. Her part was later cut.

Her father struggled with alcoholism, and her parents divorced when she was ten.  Meredith was always close with her siblings.

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She attended UCLA and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She had roles in two of the ever-popular beach blanket movies—Beach Party in 1963 and Bikini Beach in 1964. That same year she married Richard Berger, former president of MGM. They divorced four years later.

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Meredith would appear on the big screen ten more times, none of the movies being well remembered.

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In 1963, Meredith was offered a role on My Three Sons. She played Sally, Mike’s girlfriend and later wife from 1963 until 1965. Although the show was on the air until 1972, Tim Considine who played Mike, left the show in 1965 and the story line was that he and Sally moved to Arizona.

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MacRae was offered another sitcom role when her work on My Three Sons ended. She took the role of Billie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction, appearing in 114 episodes. She was the third star to play Billie Jo. In 1970 the show as cancelled.

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In 1969, Meredith married again, this time to actor Greg Mullavey (best known from his role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). They divorced in 1972 but remained friends and had a daughter Allison. Meredith was extremely close to her daughter and she traveled with her often.

Meredith released two singles with Lori Saunders and Linda Kaye Henning, her sisters on Petticoat Junction. She also had two singles as a solo artist. She was also seen on many game shows including Match Game, Family Feud, and the $10,000 Pyramid.

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Meredith would continue her television career throughout the 1970s and 1980s. She was seen in The Interns, The FBI, The Rockford Files, CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Webster, Magnum PI, and was on my favorite episode of Love American Style.

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Eventually Meredith became a television producer and writer. She also made several PBS specials tackling women’s issues, medical problems, and the aging of America. She received her own talk show which was really an investigative show called “Mid-Morning Los Angeles” for which she won an Emmy.

During the late 1990s, MacRae complained about vertigo and a loss of short-term memory. She was misdiagnosed as having issues related to peri-menopause. In 1999, she struggled with severe headaches and was told it was muscle spasms.  When she went in for a second opinion, she discovered she had Stage 4 brain cancer. She had the tumor removed and then agreed to join an experimental cancer drug treatment group, but she had an allergic reaction which caused her brain to swell. She had more surgeries and then broke her hip.

Many people praised her for maintaining her dignity and sense of humor during this painful time.

Meredith had a way of making others feel important. She had a genuine warmth and was friendly, appearing sincerely interested in others. I read about a Ladies’ Fun Night which she held every month or two. She would invite her friends and a guest speaker. Typically, about 25 women were invited including her old friend Linda Henning.

Meredith always found time to travel to discuss the effects of alcoholism on families. She enjoyed seven years with her father when he was sober before he passed away, and he approved of her speaking engagements.  She also worked for many charities including the League of Women Voters, Women in Film, Committee for the Children’s Burn Foundation, and the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation (UCPF). Her parents had also supported UCPF, and Meredith was their telethon host for 20 years. After she passed away, the MacRae/Edelman Center, a place where adults with cerebral palsy can get help, was named for her.

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When asked what helped her get through some of the tough times in her life, she replied “I believe in getting help from your friends. I don’t know what I would do without my women friends.” Many viewers who never met Meredith in person considered her a friend. She lived an incredibly meaningful life.

 

 

Oh, Alice

By the time February arrives, I am typically tired of winter and ready for some nicer weather.  Since I am not traveling anywhere warm this month, I decided to indulge myself and learn more about some of the actors and actresses behind some of my favorite television characters this month.

 

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I begin with Ann B. Davis.  Most of us recognize her as Alice on The Brady Bunch, but Ann was quite an established actress long before the show began, receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

 

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Ann was born in 1926 in New York. Her mother was a professional actress who performed with many stock companies and smaller theaters. She had an older brother and a twin sister Harriet. In a foreshadow perhaps of her future career, Ann made $2 working with puppets at age 6. The family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where Ann spent most of her school years, graduating from high school in Erie.

 

She went on to the University of Michigan where she majored in pre-med. Her brother toured the country as the lead dancer in a production of Oklahoma which inspired her to try acting.  She loved acting so much that she changed her major to drama and speech, graduating from college in 1948.

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She paid her dues for six years, performing in California in various theaters and stock companies, before moving to Hollywood. She received parts in several stage productions including The Women and Twelfth Night. In 1953, she was one of the musical judges on Jukebox Jury. The show aired Sunday nights and typically minor stars would judge new music.

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Her first film was Strategic Air Command in 1955 with Jimmy Stewart. Unfortunately, her scene was cut from the film before it was released. She would go on to star in six additional films including A Man Called Peter (1955), The Best Things in Life are Free (1956), Pepe (1960), All Hands On Deck (1961), Lover Come Back (1961), Naked Gun (1994), and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).

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In 1958 Ann accepted a position on the SAG board of governors.

 

She explored her love of theater throughout her career and in 1960 she replaced Carol Burnett in Once Upon a Mattress.

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Ann found most of her fame in television. She began appearing in series in 1956 when she was on Matinee Theater and Lux Video Theater.

 

In 1955 she received a starring role in The Bob Cummings Show as Schultzy, Bob’s assistant. For four years, she loved Bob from afar while he chased after many of the models he photographed. His sister who lived with him was trying to reform him, so he would settle down, but we knew deep in his heart he loved Schultzy. Ann won two Emmys for her portrayal of Schultzy.

 

When the show ended, she went back to making appearances, taking roles on Wagon Train (1960), The New Breed (1962), McKeever and the Colonel (1963), and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater (1964).

 

During 1965-66, she would receive another starring role appearing as Miss Wilson, the physical education teacher on The John Forsythe Show. The premise was that John had inherited a private girls’ school from his aunt. A bachelor and a retired air force major, he later becomes a spy and the school staff is eliminated from the show.

 

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After the cancellation of Forsythe’s series, Davis appeared on The Phyllis Diller Show (1966), Insight (1968), and Love American Style three times from 1970-1973. Between the years 1959 and 1969, Ann volunteered by traveling with the USO at various times.

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The year 1969 brought her the role she would become famous for as Alice Nelson on The Brady Bunch.  Ann played Alice from 1969-1995 exclusively. Ann might hold a record for playing the same character in six different series: The Brady Bunch (1969), The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976), The Brady Brides (1981), Day by Day (1981), The Bradys (1990), and Hi Honey I’m Home (1991). She also reprised her role as Alice in two made-for-tv movies: The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas

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Along with Florence Henderson and Barry Williams, she was in every Brady Bunch episode. Alice was a friend to each of the Brady kids never playing favorites, but on one episode she gives Jan a locket because they were both middle children with an older glamorous sister Emily/Marcia and a younger cutesy sister Myrtle/Cindy. In real life, Ann said that she felt Eve Plumb was the best actor of the Brady kids.

 

Florence Henderson and Ann remained friends for life.

 

On the show, Alice never got far from her roots.  She had gone to the same high school Greg and Marcia attended. Becoming a housekeeper for the Bradys before Mike’s wife died, she stayed on when he married Carol and her three daughters moved in. Alice spent as much time mediating family disputes, doling out advice, trying to keep the kids from getting in trouble with their parents, and dispensing sarcastic words of wisdom to the entire family as she did cleaning and cooking.

Alice rarely was seen out of her sky-blue uniform. She dated Sam the butcher and kept waiting for his marriage proposal. They often bowled and won a prize for their Charleston dancing. I think Sam knew all along, he couldn’t propose till Mike and Carol became empty nesters.  Alice was never a maid, she was a valued member of the family who went on vacations with the family and was invited to their school performances and into their friends’ lives. In today’s economy, Alice would probably net $50,000 a year for her job, but we know it was never about the money for her.

 

Ann received endorsements from her Alice role as well. She was in television commercials for many products including Ikea, Ford Motor Co., Shake and Bake, and Minute Rice.

 

Her role as Alice also led to her publishing Alice’s Brady Bunch Cookbook with recipes inspired by the show or contributed from cast members.

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In 1976, she moved to Denver to live with Bishop Frey and his wife Barbara in their Episcopal community, a large historical home.  For many years, Ann had volunteered with the local and national Episcopal church conferences. When Bishop Frey accepted the position as Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, Ann moved with the couple. She again moved with them to San Antonio Texas. Ann was very committed to her church and her prayer life and performed a lot of volunteer work for her church. She also appreciated her fans.  According to Bishop Frey, she spent several days even at the end of her life answering fan mail.

Ann considered herself semi-retired from show business, but in the 1990s, she made several films and accepted a role with a theater group for Arsenic and Old Lace as well as a world tour of a show called Crazy for You. She also made appearances on TV Land for award shows in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

 

Ann was extremely healthy in her golden years, but she fell, hitting her head which caused her death in 2014.

Alice Nelson has become a pulp culture icon; however, like Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, there was so much more to Ann B. Davis’s career than her role as a maid. She had an amazing career in theatre, film, and television. While I appreciate her work as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show and Miss Wilson on The John Forsythe Show, Alice took care of me, along with the Brady kids, in the early seventies, and I will always have a special place in my heart for her.

 

Stars Who Jump From the Big Screen to the Small Screen Don’t Always Land on Their Feet

While it is not uncommon for stars to transition from television to movies–think about Robin Williams, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, and Tom Hanks–it is less likely to see stars move from the big screen to the small screen.  Jane Fonda has transitioned to television in Frankie and Grace and Fred MacMurray did it with My Three Sons.  For most stars, the move has not worked out very well. Let’s look at a few stars who tried to make the conversion.

That Wonderful Guy – Jack Lemmon (1949)

Neil Hamilton (best known as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) plays Franklin Westbrook, a conceited drama critic who dislikes almost everything. Jack Lemmon plays Harold, a Midwesterner who thinks working for Westbrook will help him become worldly and give a boost to his acting career. His girlfriend is played by his real wife Cynthia Stone. The episodes revolved around his romantic and business adventures in New York City.  Perhaps Westbrook panned the show because it was cancelled after three episodes.

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Heaven for Betsy – Jack Lemmon (1952)

Three years later, Lemmon gave it another try. In this show, Lemmon plays Peter Bell, a toy store buyer. His wife Cynthia again played his wife Betsy. The series was based on a sketch “The Couple Next Door” that Lemmon and his wife played regularly on the Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, and it told about the newlyweds’ struggles in New York City. Instead of three episodes, this series lasted three months.

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Honestly Celeste – Celeste Holm (1954)

After playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Holm tried her hand at television. She plays Celeste Anders, a Minnesota college professor living in Manhattan, who is getting journalism experience working for the NY Express. Celeste wrote stories ranging from modern art to underprivileged families. She also dated the publisher’s son Bob Wallace, played by Scott McKay. After three months, she was sent back to school in Minnesota. What was most surprising about this failure was that Norman Lear (who would go on to create dozens of shows) and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) were both part of the writing staff.

 

Going My Way – Gene Kelly (1962)

Bridging television and movies, Gene Kelly redid Bing Crosby’s movie from 1944 for the small screen. Kelly is Father Chuck O’Malley, a progressive priest assigned to the slums of New York. Father Fitzgibbon played by Leo G. Carroll is a cantankerous, old priest. Dick York was his boyhood pal Tom Colwell who ran the community center. Mrs. Featherstone (Nydia Westman) played the rectory housekeeper. The list of guest stars on the show was very impressive, but after a year, the network told Kelly to keep going and cancelled the show.

 

The Bing Crosby Show – Bing Crosby (1964)

I guess Bing decided if Gene Kelly could enter television with his old movie, he might also give it a try. He plays Bing Collins a former singer. He is now an electrical engineer married to Ellie (Beverly Garland) with two daughters Janice (Carol Faylen), 15, and boy crazy and Joyce (Diane Sherry), 10, who had a high IQ. It lasted one season. Not surprisingly, this series also attracted a lot of big-name guest stars including Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Joan Fontaine, and George Gobel. Apparently, Garland had a thing for engineers because she would marry aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas on My Three Sons.

 

Mickey – Mickey Rooney (1964)

Mickey plays Mickey Grady who leaves the Coast Guard to manage a posh hotel, Newport Arms in California, with his wife Nora (Emmaline Henry) and two young boys. His real son plays one of his sons on the show. Sammee Tong plays the hotel’s manager. The former supervisor has left a lot of problems for Mickey. The show was cancelled in January airing only 17 episodes.

 

One of the Boys – Mickey Rooney (1982)

After vowing never to work on television again, Rooney tried it again 18 years later. Now he plays 66-year-old Oliver Nugent, rescued from a nursing home by his grandson Adam Shields (Dana Carvey). Adam is a college student who takes him in. Adam’s roommate, Jonathan Burns (Nathan Lane) is not so happy about the situation. Oliver looks for a job and lands one singing in a restaurant. Also appearing in the cast was Scatman Crothers who sang with Oliver and had also left the nursing home.  A young Meg Ryan played Adam’s girlfriend Jane. The show debuted at 18th place in the ratings but by within a month it had dropped to 68th. Even with this cast, the show was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

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Jimmy Stewart Show – Jimmy Stewart (1971)

Jimmy Stewart jumped to the small screen with great anticipation and excitement by viewers. He  played anthropology professor Jim Howard. Howard teaches at Josiah Kessel College, started by his grandfather.  His house is full with his wife, his son Peter, Peter’s wife Wendy, and his grandson Jake. He also has a young son Teddy, who happens to be the same age as his grandson. His friend Luther Quince often stops by to eat and give advice. Jim talks to the audience during the show and wishes them love, peace, and laughter at the end of each episode. Even beloved Jimmy Stewart was unable to save this show which was cancelled after one season.

 

The Doris Day Show – Doris Day (1968)

Doris Day was the most successful actor moving from film to television. However, I think the reason she managed to keep her show on the air for five seasons was because she changed the format so often that CBS did not realize it was the same show.  In 1968, Day is Doris Martin, a widow with two kids. She moves from the city to Mill Valley, CA to live on her father’s ranch.

The second season she commutes to San Francisco after accepting a job as an executive secretary to Michael Nicholson (MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today’s Magazine. Rose Marie was Myrna Gibbons and Denver Pyle again played her father Buck Webb.

In 1970, Doris and the kids move to an apartment over an Italian restaurant run by Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell. Billy De Wolfe was her neighbor. Now Doris is writing feature stories for the magazine.

When the show returned the next fall, Doris was single and a reporter for a magazine. Her new boss was Cy Bennett (John Dehner) and she had a boyfriend Peter Lawford but later her boyfriend turned into Patrick O’Neal. There was no restaurant.

By 1973, the network caught up with all the changes and cancelled the show.

 

It was interesting that so many actors failed in television when they were such celebrated movie stars. The radio stars seemed to have better luck making the transition. Jack Benny and Burns and Allen had long-lasting and popular shows. It’s hard to imagine actors like Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, or Ben Affleck bombing on a television series today.

I think for now I will continue to choose to watch Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and Hope and Crosby’s Road movies and set aside the television DVDs these stars appeared in.