Dena Dietrich, Actress Who Played Mother Nature in Margarine Commercials, Dies at 91

Dena Dietrich
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Dena Dietrich

She starred on Broadway in 'The Prisoner of Second Avenue' and played Bea Arthur's sister on 'The Golden Girls.'

Dena Dietrich, the veteran actress who gained pop-culture renown for her turn as a hoodwinked Mother Nature in a decade-long series of margarine commercials, has died. She was 91.

Dietrich died Saturday of natural causes at a health care facility in Los Angeles, her friend of more than 40 years, actress, composer and author Freddie Weber, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Dietrich also starred opposite Peter Falk and Lee Grant in the original 1971-73 Broadway production of The Prisoner of Second Avenue and played the sister of Bea Arthur's Dorothy on a 1991 episode of NBC's The Golden Girls.

She had recurring roles as a nurse working alongside a Manhattan doctor portrayed by Danny Thomas on the 1976-77 NBC comedy The Practice and as an unconventional judge on the 2001-02 ABC legal drama Philly, co-written by Steven Bochco.

From 1971 until about 1981, the lanky Dietrich appeared as Mother Nature in commercials for Chiffon margarine, a substitute for butter that came in a soft tub and was made out of hydrogenated cottonseed oil.

Her pleasant character would taste the product and think it was real butter, only to be informed by the narrator that it wasn't. "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature," she would say with a scowl before unleashing Zeus-like thunder and lightning. The commercials closed with the melodic line, "If you think it's butter but it's not, it's Chiffon."

"My career up until Mother Nature had been in New York, doing Broadway, doing off-Broadway, doing stock," she told Skip E. Lowe in a 2005 interview. "But the minute the Mother Nature commercials came out, all the phone calls started to come in from Hollywood. They were curious to see what that broad looks like, what was the story behind her."

Born in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, 1928, Dietrich moved to New York in the late 1940s and studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where her classmates included Grace Kelly (they worked together onstage in The Philadelphia Story), Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft.

In 1965, she toured the U.S. for a year with Funny Girl, understudying for Lillian Roth, and made her Broadway debut three years later in Here's Where I Belong, a musical adaptation of East of Eden co-written by Terrence McNally that opened and closed on the same night.

In her first movie, Dietrich played the mother of Timothy Bottoms' Vietnam veteran in The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder (1974), directed by Arthur Hiller. She went on to appear in such other films as The Wild Party (1975), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979) and Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I (1981).

Her TV résumé also included Adam's Rib, Karen, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Ropers, Murphy Brown, It's Garry Shandling's Show, NYPD Blue, and the soap operas All My Children and Santa Barbara.

She had no survivors.