Friday, April 12, 2024

This Day in TV History (Georgia Engel, Ted’s Sweet-Voiced Wife on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Dies)


Apr. 12, 2019— Georgia Engel, an actress who achieved the greatest fame of her five-decade career in her mid-20s, as wide-eyed, sweet-voiced innocent Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, died at age 70 in Princeton, NJ.

The cause of death was undetermined, because Ms. Engel, a Christian Scientist, had not sought medical for any ailment.

I have had a longstanding fascination in Ms. Engel, and not just because she became a delightful addition to The Mary Tyler Moore Show in its third season.

I find that one takes an extra interest in a well-known person if a relative has encountered that person somewhere. It gives you a sense, though sometimes illusory, that you might know more about this individual than the public does.

That was the case with me, as a favorite uncle of mine, a doorman in Ms. Engel’s New York apartment building, told me once, with a smile, that she was like her character on the great sitcom: “just as nice…and just as dumb.”

For a long time, I accepted that judgment unquestioningly. Now, I am not only uncertain that Ms. Engel was like this, but I tend to doubt it. The dumb part, that is.

It’s not just because actors are often more complicated than the rest of us—able to play multiple character types—but also because many people mistakenly think that individuals with soft, often childlike voices are not smart.

It took a while, but by early adulthood I had learned from familiarity with people with these voices that this was a gross misreading of their brain power.

Ms. Engel’s high-pitched voice was not a trick, the way that Melissa Rauch’s was when playing Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory. It was hers, and it often led to being stereotyped as a dumb blonde.

But those who thought that way in Hollywood did her an injustice. As paradoxical as it may seem, it takes intelligence to play naivete convincingly. In this respect, Ms. Engel was following the path taken by the Oscar-winning Judy Holliday in films like Adam’s Rib and Born Yesterday.

When Ms. Engel joined the cast of MTM, she ended up filling voids left by Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman when they departed for the spinoffs Rhoda and Phyllis, respectively. She provided a perspective outside the walls of WJM that went missing without Rhoda and Phyllis.

Georgette’s presence as the girlfriend (and later, wife) of Ted Baxter allowed viewers to see the stentorian anchorman not merely as egotistical, but as needy and vulnerable—more human, in other words. 

As Alexis Gunderson's fine tribute to the character (and actress) from Paste back in February 2022 notes, her "apparent obliviousness to the rotten parts of life ends up being her superpower."

Moreover, dedication, self-discipline, and adaptability enabled Ms. Engel to maintain a viable long-term career long after MTM ended its seven-season run in 1977. 

I was thrilled, decades later, to see her appearances on Everybody Loves Raymond, and New York-area theater fans grew to cherish her in musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Half Time.

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