Mabel Albertson: “I’m Getting a Sick Headache”

A tribute today to character actress Mabel Albertson (1901-1982), perhaps best known for playing Darren’s mother on Bewitched, whose visits usually culminated in the hilarious catchphrase, “Frank, I’m having one of my sick headaches.”

The older sister of actor Jack Albertson, she started out playing piano in theatres near her Haverhill Massachusetts home when she was only 13. In later years, the typical Mabel Albertson character was usually a rich WASP, the sort of woman who belonged to a bridge club, and spent her afternoons at charity luncheons, and the like. But Mabel, like her brother, was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, people of modest means. Her posh accent was acquired at the New England School of Speech and Expression. She went on to appear in stock companies, vaudeville, and nightclubs, and is said to have performed with Jimmy Durante early in her career.

Breaking in to the big time was a long, uphill climb for Albertson. She had a bit part in the 1928 film Gang War. Her next film role was 11 years later, another bit part in Mutiny on the Blackhawk. She acted on the radio shows Dress Rehearsal and The Phil Baker Show. She wrote a little for radio. She acted at the Pasadena Playhouse. She directed a 1948 episode of the television show Apartment 4A. She obviously did a little bit of everything. But sometimes things get better when you specialize.

Finally in 1952, when Albertson was over 50 years old, the ice cracked and from there on in she worked constantly in both film and television. Youth did not suit her apparently; something about the mature Mabel Albertson resonated. Among much else, she’s  in the films Black Widow (1952); Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955); Forever, Darling (1956) with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; The Long Hot Summer (1958), Home Before Dark (1958); Jerry Lewis’s Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959); All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960); Period of Adjustment (1962); A Fine Madness (1966); Barefoot in the Park (1967) , On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), and What’s Up, Doc? (1972). On TV, she appeared on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1953-55), Those Whiting Girls (1955-57); The Loretta Young Show (1953-58); The Andy Griffith Show (1966-68, as Howard’s mother); That Girl (1966-70, as Donald’s mother); The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-73, as Dick’s mother), and of course Bewitched (1964-71) as Darren’s mother. Her last role was in the 1975 TV movie Ladies of the Corridor, based on the 1953 play by Dorothy Parker and Arnold d’Usseau.

Albertson’s son was director/producer/editor George Englund, best known for directing The Ugly American (1963) starring Marlon Brando. Englund was married to Cloris Leachman for 26 years. So, in addition, to her many other roles, Mabel Albertson was Cloris Leachman’s mother-in-law; now that’s a sitcom I’d like to see.