Katherine Helmond, ‘Who’s the Boss?’ and ‘Soap’ Star, Dies at 89
Emmy-nominated actress Katherine Helmond, best known for her role on “Who’s the Boss?,” died on Feb. 23 at her Los Angeles home due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 89.
The star, whose career spanned more than five decades, played matriarch Jessica Tate on Billy Crystal’s primetime soap sitcom, aptly titled “Soap,” which ran from 1977 to 1981. She nabbed four actress Emmy nominations for the role. Helmond portrayed another famous mom, saucy Mona Robinson, in another ABC hit series, “Who’s the Boss?” (1984–1992). The role landed her two supporting actress Emmy noms.
Helmond also had a recurring roles as Doris Sherman on ABC’s “Coach” (1995-1997), opposite Craig T. Nelson and Jerry Van Dyke, and as Debra Barone’s mother Lois Whelan, alongside Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton, on CBS’ massive hit “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996-2004).
Born on Galveston Island in Texas on July 5, 1929, Katherine Marie Helmond was the only child of Joseph and Thelma Helmond. Her father was a fireman and her mother a housewife. Her parents divorced a few years after she was born, and she was raised in a strict Roman Catholic tradition by her mother and grandmother.
In addition to her TV work, the veteran actress also took Broadway by storm. She was nominated for a Tony in 1973 for her performance in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown.” She also appeared in the plays “Private Lives,” “Don Juan,” and “Mixed Emotions.”
On the film front, Helmond was a regular collaborator of Monty Python director Terry Gilliam, starring in three of his films, namely “Time Bandits” (1981), “Brazil” (1985), and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998). Helmond’s casting in “Time Bandits” wasn’t exactly conventional, as she got the part only after Gilliam’s original choice for the role, Ruth Gordon, broke her leg while shooting a Clint Eastwood movie.
In “Brazil,” Helmond played the cosmetic surgery-addicted mother to Jonathan Pryce’s central character. Gilliam is said to have called her up to offer her the part, saying, “I have a part for you, and I want you to come over and do it, but you’re not going to look very nice in it.” Sure enough, she spent several hours a day with her face covered in a mask, which caused her to develop blisters.
Despite many difficult times on set, Helmond “never fell out of love” with acting.
“I felt I blossomed as a person when I got a chance to act,” she said. “It’s been like an incredible marriage that really worked. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Her other major films include a gravestone-kicking character in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Family Plot” (1976), and the haughty Edith Mintz, who at one point threatens to castrate the main character played by Edward Herrmann, in Garry Marshall’s “Overboard” (1987). More recently, Helmond voiced the Ford Model T Lizzie in Disney/Pixar’s three “Cars” films.
Her “Who’s the Boss?” co-star Judith Light described Helmond as a “gift to our business and to the world” in a statement.
“Katherine Helmond was a remarkable human being and an extraordinary artist; generous, gracious, charming, and profoundly funny,” Light said. “She taught me so much about life and inspired me indelibly by watching her work. Katherine was a gift to our business and to the world, and will be deeply missed.”
Another “Who’s the Boss?” co-star, Alyssa Milano, is among those who have taken to Twitter to pay their respects.
Katherine Helmond has passed away. My beautiful, kind, funny, gracious, compassionate, rock. You were an instrumental part of my life. You taught me to hold my head above the marsh! You taught me to do anything for a laugh! What an example you were! Rest In Peace, Katherine,” Milano tweeted.
Helmond is survived by her husband, David Christian, who said the following after her death was announced:
“She was the love of my life,” Christian said. “We spent 57 beautiful, wonderful, loving years together, which I will treasure forever. I’ve been with Katherine since I was 19 years old. 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.”