Katherine Helmond, Tony Nominee Who Starred on TV’s Soap and Who's the Boss?, Dies at 89

Obituaries   Katherine Helmond, Tony Nominee Who Starred on TV’s Soap and Who's the Boss?, Dies at 89
Also a Golden Globe winner, the stage and screen star earned a 1973 Tony nomination for her performance in The Great God Brown.
Katherine Helmond
Katherine Helmond Kenn Duncan/New York Public Library

Katherine Helmond, the beloved red-headed, blue-eyed actor who was equally at home on stage and screen, died February 23 of complications from Alzheimer's disease, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The Texas native was 89.

Helmond made her mark in two TV comedies: Soap, which ran on ABC from 1977 to 1981, and Who's the Boss?, also on ABC from 1984 to 1992. On the former, she played wealthy, always-baffled, golden-hearted Jessica Tate, who caught the attention of most every man who passed her way. In a 1994 interview with Playbill, Helmond said the series, still popular in syndication, remained funny because of its “character development and storylines. Instead of relying on jokes or what was currently considered funny, it just stuck to the characters, the character relationships in the families and putting those people in a situation that brought out the madness of them.”

“I think it was one of the best written shows on television,” she added. “I don't now see any comedy to compare to it. It was farce also, which is not something that American writers go into very much. French and British writers have had that in their history, in their background, forever. But American comedy is a little more flat-footed, and for [Soap creator Susan Harris] to attempt to go into farce was very brave, and I thought she really succeeded—it came off wonderfully well. And, not to pat myself on the back, I thought it was an exceptional group of actors.”

Priscilla Lopez (left), Marylouise Burke, Katherine Helmond, Carlin Glynn and Joyce Van Patten in <i>The Oldest Profession</i>
Priscilla Lopez (left), Marylouise Burke, Katherine Helmond, Carlin Glynn and Joyce Van Patten in The Oldest Profession Photo by Carol Rosegg

Helmond received Primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series each year of Soap’s run. She received three additional Primetime Emmy nominations: two for her work as Judith Light's widowed, feisty, always-optimistic mother Mona Robinson on Who's the Boss? and one for her guest-starring work as Lois on Everybody Loves Raymond. Helmond also won Golden Globes for both Soap and Who's the Boss?

Born Katherine Marie Helmond July 5, 1929, on Texas’ Galveston Island, she moved to New York after pursuing an acting career in Houston and Dallas. Helmond performed in summer stock for a decade and also spent several years with both Hartford Stage Company and Trinity Repertory Theater. She won acclaim and a Drama Critics Award for her work in the Off-Broadway mounting of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves.

Helmond made her Broadway debut in 1969's Private Lives and earned a Tony nomination for her performance as Margaret in the 1972 revival of Eugene O'Neill's Great God Brown, which played in repertory with Stephen Porter’s adaptation of Molière’s Don Juan. She returned to Broadway only once more, in 1993 in the short-lived original play Mixed Emotions opposite Harold Gould.

Her stage work also included roles in Sarah in America, Quartermaine's Terms, The Madwoman of Chaillot, 'Night Mother, and Steel Magnolias, and in 2004 Helmond brought her formidable talents to the Signature Theatre production of Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel's The Oldest Profession, which cast her as a madam named Mae. The drama concerned five aging prostitutes—Helmond, Marylouise Burke, Anita Gillette, Carlin Glynn, and Joyce Van Patten—trying to survive in the world's oldest profession.

Each of the women in the show had the chance to perform a song. “In this piece there are what's called interludes,” Helmond told Playbill at the time. “Each one of the women sings or performs to some degree some kind of song, and the song reflects in many ways their characters, prior to this particular time. So, we each have a different kind of song, representing a different piece of the person's personality.” Helmond, who performed “The Fix-It Man,” added, “I have done musicals, but I'm an actor that I hope can put over a song. But I would not say I am a singer, and I certainly don't read music, so it's got to be learned by rote.”

In addition to her numerous roles on stage and television, the actor also boasted several motion picture credits, including Believe in Me, The Hospital, The Hindenburg, Family Plot, Baby Blue Marine, Time Bandits, Brazil, Shadey, The Perfect Nanny, Black Hole, Overboard, Lady in White, Amore!, The Spy Within, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Collaborator, and her final screen credit, 2018's Frank and Ava.

“I was very lucky with Soap and Who's the Boss?, which was great fun,” Helmond told Playbill in 2004, “and then went on Coach and Everybody Loves Raymond. I've been truly blessed, and the work has all been fun and a joy.”

Helmond is survived by David Christian, her husband of 57 years.