Last Sunday night (October 11), I emailed Rick my article on The Groovie Goolies. In the email, I also mentioned how much I loved the Underrated Performer of the Week feature. I then asked if Alice Ghostley would be appearing sometime soon in the spot. Well, Rick asked if I’d like to write her piece, and I said YES! Truthfully, I think her name alone makes her a perfect candidate for being an Underrated Performer of the Week feature during the month of October.
Alice Ghostley got her start on Broadway in Leonard Stillman’s New Faces of 1952. She had supporting roles in five other Broadway shows during the 1950’s. In the early-mid 1960’s, Ghostley appeared three times on the New York stage. She won the 1965 Tony award for “Best Featured Actress in a Play” as Mavis Parodus Bryson in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. She had previously been nominated for the same award in 1963 for The Beauty Part. She would not appear on Broadway again until 1978 when she took over the role as Ms. Hannigan in Annie. That also would be her final appearance on the “Great White Way.”
In addition to her multiple appearances on Broadway during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Alice Ghostley landed small parts in some good movies. She appeared in: To Kill a Mockingbird; The Flim Flam Man; The Graduate; My Six Loves; and With Six You Get Eggroll. However, I would venture a guess that most film lovers best remember her as Mrs. Murdock, the auto shop teacher in 1978’s Grease. I know I’ll always remember little Alice slapping John Travolta on the shoulder just before his big drag race and telling him: “Haul ass kid!” It was the typical oddball role that she played so well time and time again.
However, the medium where Alice Ghostley truly found fame was TV. It started in 1957 when she appeared in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Julie Andrews in the title role. Ghostley and her friend Kaye Ballard were cast as the ugly step-sisters. The positive reviews she received for playing Joy in this musical led to numerous other TV roles. In fact, Ghostley would continue work on TV up until 2000. Her final TV role being Matilda Matthews in the NBC soap Passions.
To say Alice Ghostley was a fixture on TV during the 1960’s through the 1990’s would be an understatement. It was hard to tune into a new show or rerun and not see her. Her lists of credits included: Mayberry, RFD; Maude; One Day at a Time; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Policewoman; What’s Happening; Good Times; and Evening Shade. There were two roles however that were particularly memorable.
First, Ghostley played Esmeralda on the popular ABC sitcom, Bewitched. This character was a witch who worked for the Stephens family as a nanny/housekeeper. Unfortunately, it was usually Esmeralda who needed the help. Her spells often backfired, so rather than bringing order to the Stephens house, she often added more chaos. The part was a wonderful showcase for Ghostley who could not only deliver her lines flawlessly, but communicate Esmeralda’s exasperation with her own ineptitude through her facial gestures.
The second role, and the one which I feel best showcased Alice Ghostley’s comic talents, was Bernice Clifton on the CBS sitcom Designing Women. From 1986 – 1993, you could see Alice Ghostley perform what was arguably the best role in her long career. Designing Women had one of the best ensemble casts on TV: Dixie Carter, Delta Burke; Annie Potts; Jean Smart; and Meshach Taylor. Therefore, bringing in a recurring character might have seemed odd under normal circumstances. However, Ghostley’s first guest appearance on the episode entitled "Perky’s Visit: on November 24, 1986 was very well-received. Plus, Alice Ghostley had the ability to work well within an ensemble so the producers wisely choose to write her into the show.
Bernice Clifton was a close friend of the mother of Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker. She was introduced to the audience as having an “arterial flow problem above the neck.” Bernice was a completely unique. One moment she could be commenting on the Gulf War and calling it “Operation Pantyshield.” While the next, she was reasonably arguing the merits of women as ministers in the church. Would Bernice have been such a memorable character in lesser hands? ABSOLUTELY NOT! It took an actress who was willing to be a “little fruitcake” (as Suzanne often referred to Bernice) one moment and the mother figure of the group the next. Bernice had a unique approach to life. She thought nothing of taking all the women on a “Wilderness Experience”; hosting her own public access TV show; or wearing a Christmas tree skirt as an actual skirt. Truthfully, how many actresses could have pulled off the last item?
When Alice Ghostley died on September 21, 2007, it was the end of an era. I seriously doubt we will see an actor or actress appear on TV for the number of consecutive decades that she did. Nor do I think anyone will amass the number of TV credits which Alice Ghostley did. But it was not just the quantity that made her a standout; it was the quality of her work. That is why she was my choice for Underrated Performer of the Week.