Yes, You Do Know Who Beatrice Colen Is

At least you do if you’re my age. Beatrice Colen (1948-1999) was a ubiquitous character actress of the 1970s. This was my peak TV watching time as a child, so I was a big fan of her, though I had no idea what her name was. Nor did I know (nor would it have meant much to me as a kid) this delightful piece of information: she was the granddaughter (by adoption) of George S. Kaufman, and was named after her grandmother Beatrice (Bakrow) Kaufman (1895-1945).

Colen was cute and funny, and (not surprisingly) had a snappy “New York” way of delivering a one-liner. She is best known from supporting parts she had in the ensembles of two hit tv shows: she played Marsha, the gum-chewing, roller skating carhop at Arnold’s Diner on Happy Days (1974-78 — that’s her in the credits, shoving a hamburger in Ralph’s megaphone, and shaking off a manniquin head), and Etta, the WAC sidekick of the title character on the first season of Wonder Woman (1976-77). Further, she did guest shots on several shows of which I was a devoted fan: Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Odd Couple, The Rockford Files, Ellery Queen, All in the Family, CPO Sharkey, The Love Boat, Barney Miller, etc. You can see her in such movies as Life Guard (1976) with Sam Elliott, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1977), and Who’s That Girl? (1987) with Madonna. Fittingly, one of her first major credits was a turn in the 1974 Great Performances production of June Moon, the 1929 comedy written by her grandfather in collaboration with Ring Lardner.

In late 1977, Colen married fellow actor Patrick Cronin and had two sons, which is, why I believe, she had no more regular roles on series, just occasional guest shots on TV shows through the ’80s and early ’90s. She was only 51 when she died of lung cancer in 1999. A very poignant show biz story: she died on opening night of her son’s debut as the lead in the high school production of her grandfather’s play The Man Who Came To Dinner. From what I can tell, her mother, Anne Kaufman Schneider, b. 1925, is still with us.

ADDENDUM: I subsequently got a nice note from Beatrice’s cousin, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and documentary photographer B.D. Colen, who informed me that she was known to friends and family as “Betsy” and that she “was the most naturally funny woman I have ever met.” He then went on to relate an anecdote that communicates that she was a true heir of George S. Kaufman: “One evening in the early ’60s,” he reports, “she and I were in an elevator in Manhattan, going out for dinner. I was wearing a belt that had as a buckle the brass “U.S.” plaque from a Civil War cartridge box. The woman with us in the elevator, a spitting image of Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy, noticed the buckle, and in a heavy new York accent, said, “U.S.? What’s that?” Without missing a beat, Betsy immediately responded, “Ulysses Schwartz — that’s his name!”