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Katherine Helmond, the seven-time Emmy-nominated Texas actress who played the feisty, man-crazy mother Mona Robinson on the long-running ABC sitcom Who’s the Boss?, has died. She was 89.
Helmond, who earlier starred as the wide-eyed socialite sister Jessica Tate on another popular ABC comedy, Susan Harris’ daytime-serial spoof Soap, died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at her home in Los Angeles, her talent agency, APA, announced.
The shapely, blue-eyed Helmond also portrayed Doris Sherman, the widowed owner of the fictional NFL team the Orlando Breakers, on ABC’s Coach, and she was Lois Whelan, the upper-class mother of Patricia Heaton’s character, on CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond.
On the big screen, Helmond appeared in three Terry Gilliam movies — as the seafaring cannibal Mrs. Ogre in Time Bandits (1981), as Jonathan Pryce’s rich, cosmetic surgery-addicted mother in Brazil (1985) and as a hotel clerk in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). And she provided the voice of Lizzie, a 1923 Ford Model T, in the three Cars movies.
More recently, she appeared on True Blood.
Helmond received Emmy noms for lead actress in a comedy for playing Jessica in every season of Soap, which aired from 1977-81. She was nominated again for Who’s the Boss? in 1988 and 1989 and for Everybody Loves Raymond in 2002. And she won two Golden Globes, one for each show.
The 5-foot-2-inch Helmond also showed off her glorious cheekbones when she earned a Tony nom in 1973 for best featured actress in a play for her work in Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown. She often said that the theater was her first love.
After Helmond toiled for years in small, dramatic parts on television, her agent thought it was time that the actress did some comedy.
“I was married to drunks, I got knocked around and battered and beaten and taken advantage of,” she said of her first TV roles in a 2008 interview with the Archive of American Television. “That’s one of the reasons I got switched to comedic roles. My agent said, ‘I just can’t bear to see you knocked around on television any more. … We’re going to try for a sitcom.’”
When she auditioned for Soap, Helmond said that Harris sat very seriously, never laughing, but by the time the actress had arrived home from their first meeting, she learned that she had gotten the part.
Soap, as described in the opening, was “the story of two sisters — Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell.” The wealthy Jessica had a philandering husband (Robert Mandan) and a sarcastic servant named Benson (Robert Guillaume); Mary’s (Cathryn Damon) family, meanwhile, was blue-collar.
Helmond said that Jessica “floated through life; it was like music playing all the time. [Harris] said that I had captured that, that I was very loving and wide-eyed about life, more child-like than stupid.”
On Who’s the Boss?, which aired for eight seasons from 1984-92, Helmond’s sexually active Mona dated all manner of men. She played the mother of a divorced advertising executive Angela (Judith Light), who employs a retired St. Louis Cardinals second baseman (Tony Danza) as a live-in housekeeper in Fairfield, Connecticut. His daughter (Alyssa Milano) and Angela’s son (Danny Pintauro) also live there.
Mona was a widow who moved on from her husband’s death by “throwing caution to the wind, doing whatever comes up, thinking my own thoughts, being a little more risque,” Helmond said. She heard from viewers who benefited from that characterization, she noted.
“If life dealt you some unfortunate blow, you would still be able to go out into the world, find new friends, find new jobs, find a new way of living if you knew who you were,” she said. “I felt like I was giving a free lesson to a lot of people who are in that position … I got wonderful letters from people.”
Helmond noted that ABC filmed a pilot for a Mona spinoff, but it was not picked up.
Milano paid tribute to Helmond on Friday, captioning a series photos of her co-star with the words, “My beautiful, kind, funny, gracious, compassionate, rock. You were an instrumental part of my life. You taught me to hold my head above the marsh! You taught me to do anything for a laugh! What an example you were! Rest In Peace, Katherine.”
Light called Helmond “a remarkable human being and an extraordinary artist; generous, gracious, charming and profoundly funny. She taught me so much about life and inspired me indelibly by watching her work. Katherine was a gift to our business and to the world.”
An only child, Katherine Marie Helmond was born on Galveston Island in Texas on July 5, 1929. Her father was a fireman and her mother a housewife, and she was the oldest of three daughters.
After attending Ball High School, she pursued acting in Houston and Dallas, then moved to New York with a handful of friends. When they had trouble finding work, they bought a theater in upstate New York and put on plays there. She said she did 10 years of summer stock.
She spent seven years with the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut and the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island. After winning the Drama Critics Award for her off-Broadway performance in John Guare’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The House of Blue Leaves, Helmond followed the production to Los Angeles and quickly landed a guest-starring spot on Gunsmoke in 1972.
Helmond had a role in Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971), and in Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), her character kicks over a headstone in a graveyard.
Gilliam originally cast Ruth Gordon for Time Bandits, but she broke her leg on a Clint Eastwood movie, so Helmond got the part. For Brazil, the filmmaker phoned her and said, “I have a part for you, but you’re not going to look very good in it,” she recalled.
Helmond said that she had a rubber mask glued to her face at 5 a.m. each day during production and wore it for 10 hours at a time. She developed blisters that needed medical attention, yet even during that time, she found “great joy in acting.”
“I felt I blossomed as a person when I got a chance to act,” she said. “Through all the many years now, I’ve never fallen out of love. It’s been like an incredible marriage that really worked. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Survivors include her half-sister, Alice, and her husband of 57 years, David Christian. She met him at The Hampton Playhouse Summer Stock Theater, where he was the set designer and she the leading lady.
“She was the love of my life,” Christian said. “We spent 57 beautiful, wonderful, loving years together, which I will treasure forever. I’ve been with Katherine since I was 19 years old. The night she died, I saw that the moon was exactly half-full, just as I am now … half of what I’ve been my entire adult life.”
A memorial for family and friends is being planned.
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