Katherine Helmond: Remembering a Great Lady

by Yoram Kahana March 13, 2019
Actress and director Katherine Helmond. Golden Globe winner, and husband

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Katherine Helmond, who was nominated three times for a Golden Globe and won it twice, died at age 89. Both awards were for playing roles that were far removed from Helmond's life and character. She won in 1981 for playing a ditsy, scatterbrained housewife on Soap (1977-1981), and again in 1989 for playing a flirtatious, man-hungry widow on Who's the Boss? (1984-1992).

Helmond, the actress, was the opposite of both.

Soap catapulted Helmond to worldwide fame and television stardom. The show was created by the brilliant and pioneering writer-producer Susan Harris - a Golden Globe nomination for Soap, and seven nominations, four wins for her The Golden Girls (1985-1992. Harris zeroed in on the zeitgeist with her prime time parody of daytime soap operas, that mainstay of popular American television.

Helmond was the last survivor of the two couples who led the large cast of Soap, a show that was ahead of its time: the HFPA nominated it for Best Television Series- Comedy only once, in its fourth and last season, and handed Helmond the only acting Globe earned by the series.

A voice-over explained at the start of each episode that it was “the story of two sisters — Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell.”  The wealthy Jessica (Helmond) was married to a philanderer (Robert Mandan). In contrast, her sister, Mary (Cathryn Damon) and her husband (Richard Mulligan, a Globe winner) were blue collar.

All four leads had a solid theater background, as did many others in the carefully chosen cast.

Katherine Marie Helmond was born on Galveston Island, Texas on July 5, 1929, the oldest child of a fireman and a housewife. "We were very poor," she said in an interview  "From as early as I can remember I had to work to help support the family. I had to learn to stand on my own two feet". She caught the acting bug early, appeared in high school theater and upon graduation left for Houston, Dallas, and New York. She did not have the luxury of professional acting or dance lessons. "My training was all practical and on the job, " Helmond said. When she couldn't find work, she and some friends bought a theater in upstate New York and put on plays there. "I did everything from clean the johns to repair the costumes. That was a real lesson in survival. Until we went bankrupt, and then I was out on my own again".

She did summer stock for ten years and spent years with repertory theaters in  Connecticut and Rhode Island. After winning the Drama Critics Award for an off-Broadway performance, she followed the production to Los Angeles, and had small roles on television and in movies, while planning her next move - a TV series, in a project that "would be both creative and commercial ". She went after the Jessica role and got it after just one audition. Jessica was a woman who, Helmond said  “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.”


Actress and director Katherine Helmond. Golden Globe winner, and husband

Katherine Helmond and husband David Christian.

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Helmond was signed for a seven-year contract, but the show, successful and popular, ran into organized opposition. I interviewed Helmond at her Los Angeles home during the fourth season which proved to be the last. She was realistic: "If people don't like the show, it's their right. Just turn it off... But there were complaints from the beginning. The P.T.A., The Standard and Practices Board. the Catholic Church. They condemned it even before it started to air.."

When Soap threw in the towel and went off the air, it took Helmond three years to find her next starring role, on another comedy, the eight season long Who's the Boss.

Helmond played Mona, the mother of a divorced advertising executive, Angela (Judith Light, more recently Golden Globe nominee for Transparent) who employs a retired baseball player as a live-in housekeeper (Tony Danza, four-time Golden Globe nominee). Mona was a recent widow, sexually active, dating all manner of men. As Helmond described her: "(My) Mona 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 risqué". This being the 90s, there was now little push back from conservatives. Viewers told Helmond that they welcomed the example of Mona, learning that "If life dealt you (a) blow, you would still be able to go out into the world, find new friends, find new jobs, find a new way of living"  she said. "I felt like I was giving a free lesson to a lot of people who are in that position ".

Unlike Mona, Helmond was in a happy May-December marriage, for 57 years. She met artist David Christian when he was 19 years old, working as the set designer in a summer stock theater where Helmond, then 32, was 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... 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."

R.I.P Katherine, Jessica, Mona.