Maid to Order

updated 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

GOOD HELP IS SO HARD TO FIND. HAS BEEN, It seems, since 1966. That's when actress Shirley Booth put away the well starched uniform and cap she wore for five years in the title role of the hit sitcom Hazel. As the very embodiment of unflappability, Booth played an indispensable housemaid—no one would have called her a servant—who was totally unafraid to speak her mind or, in her salt-of-the-earth way, to bestow unsolicited advice on the suburban Baxter family.

Booth, who died on Oct. 16 at age 94 in Chatham, Mass., always loved the character, based on Ted Key's classic Saturday Evening Post cartoon—and not just because she happened to own a 25-percent share in the series. "Nobody gets hoity-toity with Hazel," Booth, a two-time Emmy winner in the role, proudly declared. "It's a part that suits me. I've always maintained I've got the soul of a chambermaid."

And a decorator. That, at any rate, was the career she would have pursued if she hadn't gone into show business. But with her doughy face, nasal voice and a softness that could be cither coquettish or maternal, Booth—born Thelma Booth Ford in Brooklyn, the daughter of Albert J. Ford, a business executive, and the former Virginia Wright—possessed a remarkable stage presence from the age of 12, when she first performed as an amateur. As one critic later rhapsodized, "Her happiness infects even the ushers." Her greatest theater triumph came in 1950, as Lola, the dreamy, dopey housewife in William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. Booth was rewarded with a Tony (her second of three) and later an Oscar for the 1952 movie version.

Booth, who was married twice, had no children, although Hazel costar Don DeFore says she was wonderful with kids—his, at least. (When they and Booth went on the rides at Disneyland, he recalls, "They got her hooked on the jungle ride and Space Mountain.") She led a life that was simple, modest and single. "I have to keep my hands busy," Booth once said (she returned to television briefly, in 1973, for a sitcom, A Touch of Grace). "I'm either working in my garden, or I have a [decorating] project going indoors." Hazel would have understood perfectly.

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