Katherine Helmond, whose star-making turns on TV comedies like Soap and Who’s The Boss? sat alongside a career that ran the gamut from celebrated independent films to Tony-nominated turns on Broadway, has died. A veteran performer with more than 100 credits to her name, Helmond was 89.
Depending on your generation, Helmond most likely came into your life through one of her two most celebrated sitcom roles: Either sweetly naive Jessica Tate on soap opera send-up Soap, or as the sexually active matriarch Mona on Who’s The Boss. (Younger sitcom fanatics, meanwhile, likely know her for recurring roles as Debra’s mom on Everybody Loves Raymond.) Both roles required a particular tightrope walk well-suited to Helmond’s comic skills. On Soap, she had to juggle the over-the-top melodrama the show both trafficked in and mocked, while also providing both its easily wounded, sensitive heart, and also some of its best comic lines. Take, as a pair of examples, these two scenes, one in which Helmond first has to find the soul of a scene about a woman who is a) on trial for murder and b) trying to get back her daughter who’s been taken away by her ridiculously accented Swedish birth mother, and the other, where she has to make Jessica’s ignorance about homosexuality seem both charming and funny.
Who’s The Boss’ Mona, meanwhile, was a shift in the ways older women had been allowed to portray themselves on the small screen, creating a character who was sexually adventurous, outspoken, and utterly unashamed. The series derived a healthy chunk of its comedy from Mona’s sexual exploits—and Helmond’s talent with a wry, innuendo-laden one-liner—but it never held her or her desires up as a subject of ridicule itself. Helmond never let the character back down or sacrifice an ounce of Mona’s dignity, and that unflinching self-possession made her a comic engine capable of powering year upon year of domestic sitcom bliss.
But Helmond’s career was also much more than just a handful of beloved TV parts; she was a veteran of AFI’s famed Directing Workshop, taking the helm on an episode Boss (and several of Soap spin-off Benson, where she and Jessica would occasionally pop up). A frequent Broadway performer, she scored a Tony nomination in 1973 for Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown. And Terry Gilliam fans will likely never be able to forget her turn in the director’s Brazil, where she plays Jonathan Pryce’s mother, whose obsession with cosmetic surgery provides some of the most intentionally horrific images of a movie that doesn’t otherwise lack for them.
Helmond’s career stretched across 60 years of entertainment industry history, allowing her to play everyone from young ingenues to sentient automobiles. (Her voice shows up in all three of Pixar’s Cars movie.) And while she had an undeniable range, her most famous roles all carried a similar trait: A determined self-assuredness that rarely, if ever, backed down, whether it was in her child-like devotion to her kids, or her determination that sex could be just as fun for a woman pushing 60 as someone in their teens or 20s..
Helmond reportedly died on February 23, from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease.