Katherine Helmond, who played the ditzy Tate matriarch on the groundbreaking 1970s comedy Soap and later starred on Who’s the Boss?, among many other roles, died February 28 of Alzheimer’s complications at her home in Los Angeles. She was 89. APA announced the news.
Helmond is best known for her roles as the flighty Jessica Tate on ABC’s 1977-81 ensemble primetime soap opera sitcom Soap and as the sexy, wise and flitatious Mona Robinson — who showed that romance and excitement are not over for older women — opposite Tony Danza, Judith Light and Alyssa Milano on ABC’s 1984-92 series Who’s the Boss?
She received four Best Actress Emmy Award nominations for Soap and back-to-back noms for Who’s the Boss? in 1988-89. Helmond also scored a Best Actress Golden Globe Award for Soap in 1981, another for Supporting Actress in Who’s the Boss in 1989 and a second a Globes nom for the latter in 1986.
Helmond reprised her Jessica Tate role — one she later described as a “childlike” woman who floated through life — in two episodes of ABC’s Soap spinoff series Benson, starring Robert Guillaume.
Danza shared his feelings about his “soulmate” with Deadline today. “I was in love with her,” he said. “She was such an influence on me. From being a single guy with a hit show in Hollywood, though my marriage and having kids — she was with me. No matter what problem I had, I could go to her. Very few people could match her.”
Remembering the early days of Who’s the Boss? he added: “We luckily got Jessica from Soap. Oh my God, we hit the lottery. She was a consummate professional — never made a mistake and always got the laugh. She was the sexy older lady who could keep up with the young people. She just had a way about her.”
In a 2008 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Helmond talked about getting that audience reaction. “”Laughter is such a marvelous thing really, it’s such a healing thing, that’s one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed doing comedy,” she said. “It was great fun for me because I knew that my character was good, I knew the show [Soap] was good, and it was giving to pleasure to a lot of people.”
She also said her favorite Who’s the Boss? episode was the one is which her Mona character goes to a graduation dance with a college-age boy. A half-hour of the interview is posted below.
Helmond was also well-known for her recurring roles as Doris Sherman on ABC’s Coach (1995-97) opposite Craig T. Nelson and Jerry Van Dyke, and as Debra Barone’s mother Lois Whelan opposite Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton on the CBS hit series Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2004). She also earned a Guest Actress Emmy nom for that role in 2002, giving her seven overall for her career.
More recent television credits included guest-starring roles on A&E’s The Glades, as well as the role of Caroline Bellefleur on HBO’s True Blood.
She also voiced Lizzie, the Radiator Springs original who was married to the town’s founder and runs its curio shop in all three Disney/Pixar Cars movies. She appeared on the big screen in Family Plot — Alfred Hitchcock’s final film — Garry Marshall’s Overboard, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The actress appeared in four Broadway shows, earning a Best Supporting or Featured Actress Tony nomination for playing Margaret in the 1972 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown. Her other Broadway credits are the revivals of Private Lives (1969), Don Juan (1972) and 1993’s Mixed Emotions. She appeared Off Broadway in The Vagina Monologues and The Trip to Bountiful.
Helmond was born July 5, 1929, in Galveston, TX, and developed a love of theater early on. She appeared in numerous school plays before making her stage debut in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1955. She would spend seven years performing at the renowned Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, CT, and Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, RI. After winning the Drama Critics Award for her Off Broadway performance in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare, Helmond followed the production to Los Angeles, where she was eventually discovered by talent scouts and landed her first television role guest-starring in an episode of Gunsmoke.
She would go on to guest on such memorable TV series as The F.B.I., The Bob Newhart Show, Mannix, Medical Center, Barnaby Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and The Love Boat.
She met her husband of 57 years, David Christian, at the Hampton Playhouse Summer Stock Theater, where he was the set designer and she was the leading lady. They were wed in 1962 and remained married until her death.
“[Christian] called me ‘the Jessica Whisperer,'” Danza told Deadline. The actor said he last spoke with Helmond less than a month ago and sang “I Go to Pieces” for her while playing the ukelele. “I’ll miss her so terribly,”
Helmond is survived by her husband; her half-sister, Alice Parry; and many nephews and nieces. A memorial service is being planned for family and friends to celebrate her life and career.