Monday, March 28, 2011

Oh What a Character! Part Two: May I Offer You a Walker?

Next up in our tribute to those performers who most often lent support to others rather than having the spotlight shown on them, we hail the sarcastic, wrinkle-browed, pintsized Miss Nancy Walker. Born Anna Myrtle Smoyer in Philadelphia in 1922, her father was a busy and famous Vaudevillian dancer and comic. Dewey Barto was part of a comedy team known as Barto and Mann, the hook being that Barto was a mere 4'11” (andrarely stood up straight during performances) while George Mann was a towering 6'6”! Not all of their routines were gender-bending like this one (and this was a rehearsal shot, not the final costuming/hair/makeup), but you can see how such an act would have made Depression-era audiences chuckle! As Nancy's mother died when she was was a child and her younger sister just an infant, the two girls got a whirlwind education of the ins and outs of life on the stage. In her own words, they were raised “in a trunk.” Nancy “grew” to the same exact height that her father had possessed, 4'11.”

At the age of nineteen, Walker made her Broadway debut in Best Foot Forward. The famous producer-director George Abbott was so taken with her that he expanded her bit part into a featured role, allowing her to stand out amidst a ginormous cast. Choreographed by no less than Gene Kelly, the diminutive hoofer with a comic face pleased audiences as well as those in charge. The show ran from late 1941 to 1942 and when a film version was prepared in 1943, she, along with costar June Allyson, was retained, allowing her to make her movie debut at the most magical of studios, MGM.

She was swiftly put to comic use in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical Girl Crazy. The next year she appeared in Broadway Rhythm, sharing a scene with famed comic actor Joe E. Brown and singing a duet with Ben Blue called “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.”

Her small stature and unconventional looks limited her viability as a studio property. Not content to while away her time in Hollywood with a featured role here and there, she returned to New York City and landed the showy, scene-stealing, mildly risque part of Hildy in On the Town, a zesty Comden & Green musical. Her song, “I Can Cook, Too,” was a highlight of the show, which lasted for a healthy run. (When this was filmed in 1949, Betty Garrett was given the part.) She continued to work on Broadway in a string of shows. In 1948, Walker married fellow actor Gar Moore, though their wedded bliss didn't even last a year. Also in 1948, during Look, Ma, I'm Dancin', she developed a vocal issue and had to seek professional help. Her younger sister took over the role when she had to leave the show. She was looked after by voice coach David Craig, with whom she continued to train. In time, the two fell in love and married in 1951, staying married until her death and having a daughter, Miranda, in 1953.

After more stage performances, including a stint with Pal Joey, Walker returned to Hollywood to appear in Lucky Me, a Bob Cumming-Doris Day musical, in which she, Day, Eddie Foy Jr. and Phil Silvers played performers stuck working in a Miami hotel due to financial difficulties. Ever the hoofer, she danced proficiently in several scenes. (This, incidentally, was the first musical ever shot in Cinemascope.)

After this it was back to The Big Apple for more work on Broadway and occasional acting gigs on television. She poked fun at some showtunes having to do with the opposite sex in an album of songs called "I Hate Men" (the title track coming from Kiss Me Kate, of course.) By the way, this album cover has been noted as one of the all-time worst, but I don't see the problem. I think it's amusing and colorful. She appeared in a music revue called Phoenix '55 which secured her a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Musical, a feat she repeated in 1960 when she and Phil Silvers did Do Re Mi.

This period of her life was a strenuous one for, even though she remained employable as a stage actress, she struggled with the limitations of her size and the hampering that that size (and her type, that of a Bronx Jew) had on her career development. She entered counseling in order to work on this anxiety. She did no filmed work, on TV or in movies, at all from 1960 to 1970. In 1971, she was added to the cast of a faltering Family Affair, but it was cancelled after just six of her episodes had been shot.

There was a bit of light peeking out on the horizon, however. In 1970, she had done a guest spot on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Mary's best pal Rhoda's caustic mother. In time, this one-shot role would lead her to far greener pastures. Her first film in nearly two decades came in 1972 when she appeared in the Women's Lib-oriented Stand Up and Be Counted. She began to win parts on episodes of Love, American Style as well as guest roles on Medical Center and The Partridge Family. What's more, her role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show became an annual event. She worked on the show four times in all.

Then, in 1971, she was cast as Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James' dry, wise-cracking housekeeper Mildred on the seriocomic mystery show McMillan & Wife. The show (which only aired every couple of weeks as part of a rotating line-up on The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie) lasted in this format until 1976 when both Saint James and Walker left it. Then it was renamed McMillan for one final season (during which Martha Raye became the new housekeeper.) Her sardonic, world-weary character was a perfect counter balance to the stars of the show. She was nominated for an Emmy three times for her role in this.

Meanwhile, she not only made sporadic TV show appearances and the odd role in a feature film, but also came on board when Rhoda was spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Walker had proven so popular as her hilariously critical mother that she was added to the series as a semi-regular. Thus, she became one of the few people to appear concurrently on two successful series at the same time in completely different parts. She received four Emmy nominations for Rhoda and one year was nominated for both Rhoda and McMillan & Wife in the comedic and dramatic categories!

As if that weren't enough, she had also signed on as the commercial spokeswoman for Bounty paper towels. As Rosie, the diner waitress, she became an instantly recognizable personality, constantly wiping up her customer's spills with Bounty, “the quicker picker-upper.” Walker would portray Rosie in national commercials from 1970 to 1990! Once considered difficult to cast because of her looks and height, she now found herself so busy she could hardly keep up!

1976 brought a small part as the housekeeper in the ensemble spoof Murder By Death, in which stars such as Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith and others portrayed take-offs on various famous sleuths from literature and the movies. She was also one of many old time stars to pop up in the film Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, a sort of comedic love letter to classic Hollywood where a dog (based on Rin Tin Tin) became a major film star.

Having left McMillan & Wife due to the lure of an ABC contract, she set about filming her own TV show. The Nancy Walker Show had her starring as a talent agent with a strict ex-naval husband (William Daniels) and a dim, hypochondriac daughter (played by Beverly Archer, who would later find success as Iola on Mama's Family and Sgt. Bricker on Major Dad.) The Norman Lear-produced show also featured one of TV's first regular gay roles, that of Ken Olfson as one of Walker's clients, who also lived with her. (That's him with the glasses in this publicity shot.)

The show didn't last past the tenth episode and since Walker's contract stipulated that if her series failed, she could be placed in another one right away, she was rushed into a show that Garry Marshall was planning called Blansky's Beauties. She would portray the snarky den mother to a passel of Las Vegas showgirls. In a truly bizarre means of introduction, Marshall wrote Walker's character into an episode of his hit show Happy Days as Tom Bosley's cousin, then spun the show off from that. Trouble was, Happy Days was set in the late 1950s while Blansky's Beauties was set in then-present day 1977! To further complicate things, Eddie Mekka played a younger cousin to a character he was still playing on the (also 1950s-set) Laverne & Shirley! This sort of thing continued when Happy Days' Roz Kelly guest-starred as Pinky Tuscadero, apparently not having aged in twenty years. In any case, it failed to catch on, being cancelled after thirteen episodes were shot, giving Walker the very rare distinction of having appeared in two failed sitcoms in a single network TV season!

Like Paul Lynde, she was one of those people who worked best as a supporting player who comes in to drop some wisecracks, steal a scene or two and then disappears for a bit. All was not lost, though, because she then headed back to Rhoda, where she continued to appear until its cancellation in 1978 (despite a ratings boost that occurred when Walker came back.) She also played a female version of God in the TV-movie Human Feelings. Since 1973, Walker had been dabbling in television directing, having done two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and now four episodes of Rhoda. She also did two episodes of a short-lived sitcom called 13 Queens Boulevard. Somehow these eight half-hour episodes led to her being given the reins of an upcoming feature film, one that would live on forever in infamy due to the tackiness and idiocy dripping from every single frame!

Yes, Miss Nancy Walker was the directorial hand behind Can't Stop the Music, the musical extravaganza concerning the formation of The Village People, a collection of gay “types” (cowboy, biker, construction worker, etc...) who, for a time, were the hottest thing ever, mostly due to their hit song “YMCA” as well as “In the Navy” and “Macho Man.” The pseudo-biographical story attempted to downplay the homosexuality of the group (that is, as much as it could be!) by inserting a buxom Valerie Perrine into the mix and avoiding any outright mentions of man on man love. However, the visuals (containing scantily clad men in clinging clothes or Speedos and other provocative get-ups) made it all too clear who the audience for this story really was.

Budgeted at $20 million, half of that went into staging all sorts of lavish premieres across the U.S. and Europe. However, the film was greeted with such derision (and disco had officially been declared dead not long before that in a memorable public record-burning ceremony) that it made only a limping $2 million back. It, along with Xanadu, inspired John Wilson to create The Golden Raspberry Awards (The Razzies) and Music “won” Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. Walker was nominated for but “lost” Worst Director.

Following this public humiliation, she did some appearances on The Love Boat, Trapper John, M.D. and Crazy Like a Fox and also directed several episodes of the sitcom Alice. In 1987, she made two appearances on the hit show The Golden Girls as Estelle Getty's estranged sister Angela. The caustic, diminutive Walker (in a gray wig, a rare departure from her signature red hair) made a sterling bookend to the equally short and snappy Getty. It was a stroke of casting genius and she was given her eighth, and last, Emmy nomination for the role.

Now in her mid-sixties, Walker continued to work steadily, appearing on yet another short-lived show, Mama's Boy, with Bruce Weitz (of Hill St. Blues fame) as her son and later True Colors. This last show centered on an inter-racial marriage, with Walker on hand as a disapproving relative of the Caucasian wife (Stephanie Faracy.) It was during this series, in 1992, that Walker, who had been battling lung cancer, died on March 25th. She was sixty-nine years old. Her widower, David Craig, died in 1998 at seventy-five, also from lung cancer, and their daughter passed away in 2000 at the all-too-early age of forty-seven.

The unusual, but unusually gifted, Nancy Walker found a way to play to her strengths in spite of any potential weaknesses and brought loads of laughter to several generations of fans. We like to think that she helped pave the way for other ladies who didn't fit into a certain mold to have a career in the business.


Poseidon3 said...

My apologies in advance to those faithful readers who went to click on some of the pictures in this post and found that many/most of them would not enlarge. There is no earthly way to express the frustration I had this time out in posting.... Every time I inserted a picture, the test would congeal into one long paragraph, so I switched to Google Chrome instead of Explorer and that caused all of the pictures to be embedded and not clickable! I did go back and redo a few of them (like the McMillan, Golden Girls and Can't Stop the Music montage pics), but couldn't do them all. Life is not fair!

Rob said...

Don't worry about it, Poseidon--still a great post! I always liked Nancy Walker and it was cool reading info about her I'd never read before. Sounds like a nice dame (weirdly, I've always associated her with Jane Withers-at least I think that's her name-she played a plumber in commercials)!

Poseidon3 said...

Yes, Josephine the Plumber! (But what was the product?!? No clue..... Great advertising. Ha ha!)

dcolp said...

Comet cleanser!

"Da Empress" said...

Wow! I never knew that was she was Angela on The Golden Girls. Learn something new everyday. Thanx!

Pantheon Zeus said...

I wrote a fan letter to long lost 70s also-ran Rhonda Bates ( "Speak Up America!") but she didn't reply.
oh well...guess she wants anonymity in Texas

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

I think that album cover is great. Who would think it's bad? Someone with no sense of humor? Maybe some people don't like it because Nancy doesn't look "beautiful?" But that was never here thing anyway.

I didn't even know it existed and now I'm listening to it. I guess it isn't something you'd want to hear a lot, but she acquits herself pretty well as a "comedian."

I was very aware of Nancy Walker since I watched both MTM and McMillan and Wife when they were on the first time. Her appearances on MTM were real highlights of the show. The Rhoda years on MTM were the best!

Poseidon3 said...

I think my first exposure to that Nancy Walker album was in one of those "10 Worst Album Covers" or some such listing... I also have no clue what the problem is. I'm happy that Ms. Walker had that second stage career highlight on TV shows of the '70s (and still had some fuel in the tank for her pop-ups on "The Golden Girls.)