Nancy Kulp: Portrait of a Rare Bird

plain janes miss jane[1]

Today is the birthday of the late great character actress Nancy Kulp (1921-1991). Best known of course for her role as “Miss Jane” Hathaway, the love-starved spinster secretary on The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), she played many such roles over the years, often as guest shots in situation comedies and dramas. Flat-chested, rail-thin, prim and proper, she seemed more than vaguely English, despite the fact that she hailed from Pennsylvania, and moved to Florida as a teenager. Originally trained as a journalist, in the early 1950s she went to work in the publicity department of a movie studio, where she was discovered by George Cukor, who encouraged her to try acting. She had many small parts in movies over the years (including many for Walt Disney), but it was her role as a bird-watching neighbor on The Bob Cummings Show starting in 1955 that forever cemented her profile as a highly eccentric — but very recognizable type.

"Be so good as to go, Jethro!"
“Be so good as to go, Jethro!”

As time went on, the iconography of the character she played gathered new shades of meaning. Just the other night, the Mad Marchioness and myself caught her in an episode of Sanford and Son. She had a recurring role on that show from 1975 to 1976  as the very whitest of white ladies, always to entrance and exit applause. People loved Nancy Kulp to death, much as they loved Tony Randall. I confess to being among the idolaters. She had so much class, and she didn’t apologize for it. She was absolutely willing to be 100% herself, to plunge right into the most vulnerable, humiliating sort of behavior for the sake of our amusement. Without debasing herself, mind you — just being human, but in the most courageous way. There is a ton to learn from the example of this actress.

And yes, she was of the L persuasion, research bears it out. I never make assumptions, as many seem to think it’s OK to do: “Of COURSE she’s this or that!” Of course, nothing. Kulp divorced her husband of ten years in 1961, thereafter secretly practicing her conviction that “Sometimes birds of a feather flock together.”, which is all she was willing to say on the subject. I guess there was more to that bird watching than meets the eye!

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