By Will Dunham
(Reuters) – Actress Katherine Helmond, a seven-time Emmy Award nominee who played lusty matriarchs on the hit television sitcoms “Soap” and “Who’s the Boss” from the 1970s into the 1990s, died last month at the age of 89, her talent agency said on Friday.
Helmond, who also delivered a memorable turn as a vain woman obsessed with plastic surgery in director Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film “Brazil” (1985), died Feb. 23 at her Los Angeles home due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“My beautiful, kind, funny, gracious, compassionate, rock,” Alysssa Milano, who starred alongside Helmond in “Who’s the Boss,” said on Twitter. “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!”
Helmond was in her 40s and had already been nominated for a Tony Award for her work on Broadway before landing a starring role on “Soap,” a prime-time parody of daytime soap operas that ran on the ABC network for four seasons from 1977 to 1981.
She then starred on “Who’s the Boss?” on ABC with Milano, Tony Danza and Judith Light from 1984 to 1992, followed by recurring roles on sitcoms “Coach” starring Craig T. Nelson from 1995 to 1997 and “Everybody Loves Raymond” with Ray Romano from 1996 to 2004.
“Katherine Helmond was a remarkable human being and an extraordinary artist; generous, gracious, charming and profoundly funny,” Light said in a statement. “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, and will be deeply missed.”
Helmond played Jessica Tate, a sex-crazed scatterbrain, “Soap,” a show known for warped characters and deliberately farfetched plots, including alien abduction and demonic possession. People magazine referred to its “cheerfully tasteless handling of such topics as impotence, homosexuality, promiscuity, adultery, etc.” and it caused some controversy when it debuted.
“I don’t think it’s lurid,” Helmond told People. “Daytime soaps go into areas – lesbianism, married nuns, a woman in love with a priest – that would not be touched in prime time. And they’re super-serious. We just take real situations and exaggerate them.”
On “Who’s the Boss?” Helmond played Mona Robinson, the man-crazy mother to Light’s character, an ad executive who hires retired baseball player Danza as her housekeeper.
Helmond won two Golden Globe awards in 1981 for “Soap” and in 1989 for “Who’s the Boss?” She never won an Emmy but was nominated four times for “Soap,” twice for “Who’s the Boss?” and once for “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Helmond also appeared in director Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie, “Family Plot” (1976), and in Gilliam’s films “Time Bandits” (1981) as an ogre’s wife and in the visually striking “Brazil” (1985) as the plastic surgery aficionado.
In one “Brazil” scene, she sits in a chair chastising her son, played by Jonathan Pryce, over his lack of ambition while a doctor stretches her face into ridiculous contortions and covers it in plastic wrap. “Already, she’s twice as beautiful as she was before,” the surgeon proudly announces.
Helmond was born on July 5, 1929, in Galveston, Texas, and attended the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University. She later became a Buddhist.
Helmond took a variety of roles on stage and TV but her career took off after being nominated in 1973 for a Tony Award for her performance in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown.”
She is survived by her second husband, David Christian.
“She was the love of my life,” Christian said in a statement on Friday. “We spent 57 beautiful, wonderful, loving years together, which I will treasure forever.”
(Reporting and writing by Will Dunham; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Trott and Leslie Adler)