Nancy Walker: The Quicker Picker Upper

Diminutive comedienne Nancy Walker (1922-1992) was a big star when I was a kid in the ’70s. She played Rhodas’s wisecracking Jewish mother Ida on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda; and Mildred, the buttinsky maid on McMillan and Wife; plus she was Rosie the diner waitress in the Bounty Paper Towel commercials; plus she was in Neil Simon’s smash-hit all-star comedy Murder By Death (1976). For a time she was ubiquitous. I’m not sure where I thought she came from, but I’d always assumed that this stretch of her career was the meat of it. In reality, she had attained success decades earlier, way before my time, in vehicles I wouldn’t be aware of until years later.

Walker was the daughter of vaudeville performer Dewy Barto of the team Barto and Mann (like Nancy, her dad was only 4′ 11″ tall). Originally billing herself as Nan Barto, Walker began acting in radio in the late ’30s. In the ’40s and ’50s, she became a musical comedy star, both on Broadway and in Hollywood films. Her debut was the comical blind date in Best Foot Forward which she played on Broadway in 1941 and in the film version in 1943. Next she was in the 1943 remake of Girl Crazy, and then in Broadway Rhythm (1944). After this she returned to Broadway where she was to appear in 20 shows over a quarter century, including On the Town (1944-46), Pal Joey (1952), Desk Set (1957), Wonderful Town (1958), Do Re Mi (1960-62), and Luv (1967).

Her success in the Bounty commercials led to the huge burst of work she got in the ’70s, including not only the stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph, but a recurring role on Family Affair, and the films Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), 40 Carats (1973), and the high profile ABC tv movie Death Scream (1975).

Then…a period of overreach, but who could blame anyone? She was tried in two of her own starring sitcoms, both of which were cancelled after 13 episodes: Norman Lear’s The Nancy Walker Show (1976), and Garry Marshall’s Blansky’s Beauties (1977). Something about Walker’s success rested on her being a vocal part of an ensemble, not the lead.

In 1980 Walker, who’d also quietly developed a solid track record as a tv director, directed Can’t Stop the Music, the infamous Village People disco musical. At the time, and long afterward, that seemed inexplicable, one of those weird bits of Hollywood trivia. As Walker herself might put it, “Go figure!” But when you know her story, it makes perfect sense: she had a solid resume as a director, and she had spent several decades in musicals. It actually makes perfect sense. Can’t Stop the Music, indeed.

But that movie was a famous flop, and the wings of Icarus had melted. In the next decade, she continued in her commercial role as Rosie, and did guest shots on shows like The Golden Girls. Then in 1990, she got a new sitcom, True Colors, in which she played the subtly bigoted mother of a woman who married an African American man. She was still a regular on the series when she died of lung cancer in 1992.