If Mary Tyler Moore could turn the world on with her smile, then actress Georgia Engel did the same thing with her voice, which has been described by many as child-like and angelic — to the point when there was nothing funnier than watching her play an angry scene. Sadly, Georgia recently passed away at the age of 70. The cause is unknown given that, as a Christian Scientist, she didn’t consult with doctors.
In a career that spanned nearly 50 years and ran the gamut from stage to film and television, she is undoubtedly best known as Georgette Franklin, love interest for buffoonish newscaster Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as Pat MacDougall, mother-in-law of Robert Barone (Brad Garrett) on Everybody Loves Raymond.
She was born July 28, 1948, in Princeton, New Jersey, and studied ballet before deciding to become an actress. In 1969 she appeared in an Off-Broadway production of Lend an Ear and spent a year in the production of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. Things took off in a big way in 1971 when she starred in an Off-Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves which, when it played in Los Angeles, was seen by Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, producer Grant Tinker.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Mary Tyler Moore writer Treva Silverman explains, “It was a surprise party for the Rhoda character, who was going to New York, so we realized we had to have characters who worked with Rhoda and were not just the people we already knew. [Series co-creator] Allan Burns said, ‘She’s a window dresser, let’s give her another window-dresser.’ We knew we had the perfect duet between Rhoda and Mary, because they were so different, so who could we get to work with Rhoda? The truth is that Rhoda is sharp; she’s not ditzy. We need a ditzy one. Then I remembered seeing the Milos Forman film Taking Off, and I thought she was Georgette Engel. I kept saying to myself, ‘Keep her in mind when you’re writing ditzy.’ The minute I could get something to voice, that’s when the writing becomes easier. So I got her voice sort of how it was in the Milos Forman movie. I finished that, Allan said, ‘I like this character, who do you see playing it?’ I said, ‘Georgette Engel from Taking Off.’ He liked that.
“We called her manager or agent and asked if she could do it,” Treva continues. “During rehearsal she was so adorable and lovable, a little kitten girl, so we developed and wrote more lines. At the end of the show, after we filmed it on Friday night, the decision was made to make her a semi-regular. So I told her and saw the happiest person I’d ever seen in my life.”
In an interview with The Star, Georgia reflected, “It was only going to be one episode, and I was just supposed to have a few lines in a party scene, but they kept giving me more and more to do. Then the following Monday morning, there was a buzz on my door and I looked through the peeper and there was this giant potted palm with a note that said, ‘Welcome to the MTM Family.’”
As to how the decision was made to make her Ted’s girlfriend, Treva explains, “I always wrote Ted as my mother in certain ways. My mother would do horrible things; she saw my cousin’s house and said, ‘What an ugly little house.’ She does horrible things and doesn’t know they’re horrible. That’s so different than someone who does horrible things and knows they’re horrible. So Ted never would know. I would always think, ‘How would my mother handle this?’ He would just go off scot free having a great time. The only person who could fall in love with him, who could see through all that, was somebody as pure as Georgette. The character was so unlikely yet so right. Over the seasons she very much humanized him.”
After Mary Tyler Moore ended its run in 1977, Georgia was a part of the short-lived series The Betty White Show, Goodtime Girls and Jennifer Slept Here. She continued to work but by, 2000 — the same year her mother died — she hit some rough times and found that her heart just wasn’t into acting. She trained to become a caregiver in the mission facility part of her church. As she explained, “I worked with people who saw the hardest stuff every day and their joy never wavered. At the end of the summer they asked me to say. But I prayed: ‘Father, if it’s all right for me to share laughter with people, then I feel that is more my calling.’ I realize that we’re all supposed to do what we do best, and my gift is more for sharing laughter than changing bedpans.”
It was obviously the right decision, as she became a recurring character on Everybody Loves Raymond (garnering three Emmy nominations on top of the two she had been nominated for with The Mary Tyler Moore Show). She continued working stage and TV roles, becoming a recurring character on Hot in Cleveland. Her last role was in a 2018 episode of the rebooted One Day at a Time.
The passing of Georgia Engel is a loss to all her fans, and Ed Asner — Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show — nicely sums up how people feel about Georgia in his own Archive of American Television Interview. “She doesn’t belong on this Earth,” he smiled warmly. “She’s too good for this Earth. And in a way, she shows how angels can defy desecration by mankind.”
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