R.I.P. Katherine Helmond of Soap, Who's the Boss? and Coach
Image: The Everett Collection
The first time Katherine Helmond went out for a comedic role as a cast member, it was for Soap, but securing her spot on the show was a rather slippery process, she said. The casting director was skeptical that she had the chops to play Jessica Tate.
"Can she be funny?" Helmond remembered them asking her agent, who she said assured them, "Oh yes, she's really very funny." In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Helmond said she went through four scenes during that audition that she thought they only gave her to repay a favor to her agent. The casting director never cracked a smile once during her reading, and yet, Helmond said, "Before I got home, they called and said I had got the job."
Nowadays, it would be impossible for fans of Helmond's to recall the actress' work without thinking of the twinkle in her eye that came with characters like Jessica on Soap and Mona on Who's the Boss? But apart from an uncredited appearance on Car 54, Where Are You? the actress was better known in her earlier days for dramatic work on shows like Gunsmoke, Mannix and The Bionic Woman.
Who knows what direction Helmond's career could've taken if Soap didn't choose her as the show's hilarious matriarch? Just check out these dramatic scenes from Gunsmoke "Judgement," where her character's so sympathetic, protecting her leads to a shoot-out!
Of course, we never saw that world, and thankfully, Helmond went on after Soap to crack us up on sitcoms like Who's the Boss? and Coach, among a string of other appearances on hit sitcoms, from The Love Boat to Everybody Loves Raymond. She even featured in an episode of The Bob Newhart Show where she reversed the roles and had Bob sitting on her couch.
Helmond's career began in the Catskills, just like tons of other funny folks, where she ran a theatre, biding her time through the 1960s until the 1970s would make her famous. That decade, on top of her TV work, she also notably featured in Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot.
By the end of her career, Helmond had two Golden Globe awards under her belt, one for Soap and one for Who's the Boss?, proving to that casting director so long ago that her agent was right: Yes, Katherine Helmond can be funny. Later that same casting director told Helmond that she had really captured the part of Jessica Tate, a very difficult role that required more than flightiness to pull off. Helmond remembered, "She said that I ... was very loving and very outgoing and wide-eyed about life, which was more childlike." They didn't know how anyone would pull it off, but Helmond nailed it the first time she tried.
On February 23, Katherine Helmond passed away at the age of 89.