Good Night, Mrs. Morgenstern
SHE WAS A BLUE-COLLAR EVERYGAL, A 4'11" comic virago with a voice like sandpaper and a gift for the wisecrack. Her most memorable characters—mom Ida Morgenstern on TV's Rhoda, Mildred the housekeeper on McMillan and Wife, the man-chasing cab driver Brünnhilde Esterhazy in Broadway's On the Town, even her Rosie the waitress—brimmed with sass and grit. It was with that same pluck that Nancy Walker, a reformed smoker, fought her final, six-year battle with lung cancer. She succumbed on March 25 at age 69. Walker's husband of 41 years, vocal coach David Craig, 69, and her only child, Miranda, 38, an advertising copywriter, were by her side in Studio City, Calif., when she died.
Walker first became a household name mopping countertops with the "quicker picker-upper" as Rosie the waitress in Bounty paper towel commercials between 1970 and 1990. Of the role, which led to her sitcom work, she said, "An artist is an artist no matter what he does."
Born Anna Myrtle Swoyer in Philadelphia, Walker grew up in vaudeville. Her mother, Myrtle, was a dancer and her father, Stewart, an acrobat. At 19, she chose a name from the phone book—Walker—and auditioned for the Broadway musical Best Foot Forward (1941), so bedazzling producer George Abbott that he had a part—and two songs—created for her. She went on to shows like On the Town and Look Ma, I'm Dancin', prompting New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson to call her "the best slapstick comedienne of her generation."
Offstage, Walker had a strong marriage, and as a mother, says Miranda, she provided "a fierce, wonderful love that no one will ever give me again." Only a few ever penetrated the comic mask. Says Harold Gould, Walker's husband on Rhoda: "I saw her privately give way to tears of frustration when she felt her performance wasn't going right."
Which, happily, was rare. Trouper to the end, Walker appeared all season as acerbic grandma Sara Bower in Fox's True Colors, missing only the final episode. "I love that she went out like she came in," says Valerie Harper, her TV daughter on Rhoda. "With greasepaint on."
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