The Goofy Greatness of Ann Guilbert

A few words of appreciation this morning for Ann Guilbert, or Ann Morgan Guilbert (1928-2016).

Guilbert enjoyed a sort of charmed career. She went from being a key cast member in the popular Billy Barnes Revues, to a regular supporting role on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), as Millie, the funny next door neighbor, who was always putting down her husband Jerry the dentist (Jerry Paris). The backstory was that Millie and Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) had been in the USO together, allowing for the occasional song and dance moment on the show. Guilbert’s comic presence at this time was vaguely reminiscent of Imogene Coca’s, sort of bug-eyed and chinless. The slightly droll manner of Ann Dudek as Francine on Mad Men has always reminded me a little of Millie/Guilbert.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was just the first of six sit-coms on which Guilbert had regular roles. Next, she could be seen on The New Andy Griffith Show (1971). Two decades later, she was a lead on The Fanelli Boys (1990-91), a short-lived sit com which also featured Joe Patoliano of The Sopranos, Chis Meloni and Ned Eisenberg of Law and Order: SVU, and Richard Libertini. From here she went to a recurring part on Picket Fences (1992-94), and then, one of her more memorable ones, as Fran Drescher’s grandmother on The Nanny (1993-1999). Late in life she had a recurring role as a patient on the HBO remake of the British series Getting On (2013-15), which was set in a hospital.

Additionally Guilbert made guest appearances on such shows as I Dream of Jeannie, Room 222, Love American Style, Emergency!, the original The Ghost Busters, On the Rocks, Maude, Barney Miller, Cheers, Murder She Wrote, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Grey’s Anatomy. Her handful of movie appearances include roles in Two for the Seesaw (1962), The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963), A Guide for the Married Man (1967), How Sweet It Is! (1968), Viva Max! (directed by her old cohort Jerry Paris, 1969), Grumpier Old Men (1995), and Larry David’s ill-fated Sour Grapes (1995). She returned to Broadway in 2005 for A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.

Guilbert’s daughter is actress Hallie Todd, best known for playing the mom on Lizzie McGuire (2001-04). Her first husband George Eckstein was a major TV scriptwriter and producer (The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Banacek). Her second husband was dancer and character actor Guy Raymond.

For more on variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube