Anyone who watched the Dick Van Dyke Show knows that the supporting cast was a big part of the show. While Sally and Buddy helped Rob come up with the perfect jokes at work, Millie and Laura were a great comedy team at home. Ann Guilbert continued to find other great supporting roles after the show ended. She was still fine-tuning those roles when she passed away in 2016. She was then playing a grandmother on Life in Pieces.
Ann Morgan Guilbert was born in Minneapolis, MN in 1928. She was an only child and her father worked for the Veterans’ Administration. He moved the family around for jobs quite often. Growing up, she lived in Tucson, AZ; Asheville, NC; Livermore, CA; and El Paso, TX. The family was in Milwaukee, WI during her high school years.
Until she was 14, Ann wanted to be a nurse, but from that time on, she knew she had the acting bug.
When her father took a job in San Francisco, Ann decided to go with her parents and attended Stanford University where she majored in theater arts. Her first part there was as Topsy in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She realized that she liked to make people laugh.
While in school, she met fellow major George Eckstein. They married in 1951. Although they majored in theater arts, George went to law school and Ann worked as a legal secretary. During the summer when George was off, they went to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival where she specialized in playing “nutty” ladies. George was drafted and sent to El Paso; Ann went with him. She was involved in the Little Theater there.
When Ann joined the Screen Actors Guild, there was an actress named Ann Gilbert, so Ann was asked to change her name. She went with her real name, Ann Morgan Guilbert. Morgan was her mother’s maiden name. (Her mother was related to Mayflower passenger William Brewster.)
George practiced law for a short time and decided he wanted to get back into the entertainment business. He got a job producing The Billy Barnes Revue. Ann had a part in the show and Carl Reiner saw her in that performance in two different cities.
Before The Dick Van Dyke Show, Guilbert made three appearances on television on My Three Sons, Hennessey, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Jerry Paris, who played her husband on The Dick Van Dyke Show, had been a friend of her and her husband for a long time. He took Ann in to audition for the role of Millie, his wife. She was hired and was on the show for the entire five years it was on the air. Millie was based on one of Reiner’s neighbors from New York who would do things like take out the garbage on the wrong day or paint herself into a corner of a room. She said she wasn’t given a contract for the first two years. During the third season, Reiner wanted to provide her with one, but she said things had been going along well enough.
Ann became pregnant early in the first season. She was afraid to tell Reiner, worrying she would be replaced because it was so early in the show’s life. However, he was very happy for her, and they hid her pregnancy behind large tops or props. That baby is actress Hallie Todd, who is best known as Lizzie’s mother on Lizzie McGuire. George and Ann would have another daughter Nora, an acting teacher and writer.
Ann’s favorite part of the show was Thursdays when the cast would sit around the table with the writers to look at the new script. Ann thought their writers were hysterical. Some of them included Reiner, Garry Marshall (who would go on to create The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy), as well as Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (who wrote for many shows, including That Girl.) Everyone had a say in the script and could throw out one-liners or make suggestions.
The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966 and that same year George and Ann divorced. George was best known for being the writer and producer of The Fugitive.
Guilbert said she never watched the reruns much. She recalled, “When I do see them, it seems like it never happened. I just can’t remember it at all.” Once the show ended, Ann, like so many fellow actresses, was typecast as Millie. During the 1970s and 1980s, she would guest star on some of the best sitcoms on the air including The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Room 222, The Partridge Family, Love American Style, Barney Miller, Cheers, and Newhart.
In 1969 Ann married character actor Guy Raymond. About that time, she decided to give Broadway a try. Her daughter said Ann loved performing on stage and that is when she felt her career was most important. She appeared in “The Matchmaker,” “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Waiting for Godot”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Harvey”, “Green Grow the Lilacs”, among others. She won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Non-Resident Production in 1988 for her role of Alma in “The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album”.
She also appeared in eight movies during her career including A Guide for the Married Man, Viva Max!, and Grumpier Old Men.
But Guilbert didn’t give up on television. In 1990, she starred in The Fanelli Boys. Ann played Teresa Fanelli. She is a recent widow living in Brooklyn and heading for Florida to live when her adult boys all move back in. Frankie is a ladies’ man, Ronnie dropped out of school, Dom is a scammer, and Anthony runs the family business, a funeral home which is $25,000 is debt. Teresa’s brother Angelo is a priest who gives advice to the boys, but not always good advice.
She made several guest appearances in the 1990s but had recurring roles on Empty Nest, Picket Fences, and Seinfeld.
The role many younger tv fans know her best is Yetta in The Nanny. She would join the cast, appearing in 56 shows between 1993 and 1999. She had fun doing the role. When she met with the wardrobe staff, they decided she would dress outrageously. She was able to wear sequined jackets, jazzy pants, and crazy tops. She also appreciated working with Ray Charles, who played her boyfriend.
During this time, her second husband passed away in 1997.
Ann would continue guesting on shows into the 2000s, including Grey’s Anatomy in 2015 and Modern Family in 2013. She also was cast in the show Getting On from 2013-2015. This was a dark comedy on HBO that took place in the geriatric wing of a financially failing hospital. Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne and The Big Bang also was part of the cast.
Her last series was Life in Pieces. She played Gigi, Joan’s mother. She was in two episodes before she passed away in 2016. One of the episodes, “Eyebrow Anonymous Trapped Gem” was dedicated to her memory. In a tribute to her, each of the four stories involve her character.
Her doctor had been trying to convince her to give up her several-pack-a-day cigarette habit, but she refused and talked about it often. She died from cancer at age 87.
Cheers to a funny lady who kept us laughing for more than fifty years.