Katherine Helmond, a versatile actress who was especially known for her roles on the long-running television series “Soap” and “Who’s the Boss?,” died on Feb. 23 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 89.
The APA Agency, which represented her and announced her death on Friday, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
On “Soap,” ABC’s prime-time parody of daytime soap operas, which ran from 1977 to 1981, Ms. Helmond played Jessica Tate, a lovable aristocrat who was one of the show’s main characters. Some viewers, as is often the case, wrongly assumed that the character was her.
“After I did ‘Soap,’ ” she told The Boston Globe in 1998, “people thought that the casting director had gone to a dinner party or something and found this dizzy lady and brought her to Los Angeles. People are surprised to find out that I’m from a very working-class Irish Catholic family and that I didn’t come from a lot of money and go to a nice finishing school and live in a grand house in Connecticut.”
The role earned her four Emmy Award nominations. Then, in 1984, came the sitcom “Who’s the Boss?,” also on ABC, about a former baseball player (played by Tony Danza), who becomes a live-in housekeeper for a divorced mother named Angela Bower (Judith Light). Ms. Helmond played Angela’s free-spirited, constantly dating mother, Mona Robinson.
“Who’s the Boss?” drew solid ratings for years, running for eight seasons and almost 200 episodes. Ms. Helmond was twice nominated for an Emmy for her performance.
But more important to her was the example the character set for women in midlife, especially if they had been widowed or were otherwise facing an uncertain future.
In a videotaped oral history, she recalled in 2008, “I got letters from people saying, ‘When my husband passed away I thought it was the end of the world for me, but by watching your silly show I found out that there were other things in life.’ ”
Katherine Marie Helmond was born on July 5, 1929, in Galveston, Tex. Her father, Patrick, was a firefighter. After her parents divorced, she was raised largely by her mother, Thelma Malone, who remarried.
Katherine became involved in local community theaters in junior high school and high school.
“I did everything,” she said in the oral history, for the Archive of Television History. “I pulled the curtain, I learned to do the lights, I did the props, I held the script. And I truly learned everybody’s job that contributed toward the total piece.
“I think that that helped me tremendously when I became a professional actor. I didn’t have the deluded notion that I was ‘it.’ ”
That community theater experience was essentially her acting training; she did not go to college or acting school. After graduating from high school she worked for several years with a professional theater in Houston, then went to New York. She began landing Off Broadway and summer-stock roles, and with several friends ran a summer theater in the Catskills for three seasons.
Ms. Helmond became a well-regarded stage actress in New York and beyond. In 1966, working with the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., she took on the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“Miss Helmond gives all of Blanche’s irritating mannerisms,” Kevin Kelly wrote in a glowing review in The Boston Globe, “the coquettish come-on, the infuriating pretense, but she makes us understand (far more persuasively than many actresses I’ve seen in the role) the demons driving her beyond the brink. I’m not ashamed to admit that Miss Helmond brought tears to my eyes in three scenes.”
She was also in the New York premiere of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” in 1971 at the Truck and Warehouse Theater. In 1972, when the New Phoenix Repertory Company paired Molière’s “Don Juan” with Eugene O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown” in repertory on Broadway, she had roles in both; her work in “The Great God Brown” brought her a Tony Award nomination.
Soon after that she made the move to the West Coast to try her hand at television, landing roles on series like “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Mannix” as well as parts in television movies like “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” (1975). In addition to her signature roles on “Soap” and “Who’s the Boss?,” Ms. Helmond had recurring roles on “Coach” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” (for which she also received an Emmy nomination).
Though most of her work was on television, she turned up occasionally on the big screen, perhaps most memorably in Terry Gilliam’s films “Time Bandits” (1981), “Brazil” (1985) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1988). She also continued to work on the stage.
Ms. Helmond returned to Broadway in 1993 in Richard Baer’s “Mixed Emotions.” In 1998, at the Orpheum Theater in Foxborough, Mass., she played a mother trying to persuade her daughter not to kill herself in the Marsha Norman drama “ ’Night, Mother.”
Ms. Helmond’s first marriage, to George Martin, ended in divorce. She is survived by her husband, David Christian, whom she married in 1962; a half sister, Alice Parry; and nieces and nephews.
On Twitter, Alyssa Milano, who starred with her on “Who’s the Boss?,” called Ms. Helmond “my beautiful, kind, funny, gracious, compassionate rock.” Mr. Danza tweeted, “No words can measure my love.”