If I were asked to name my favorite sitcoms, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld would probably battle it out for the top position—though I've probably watched each episode of MTM more than any other TV show. So, it was a great thrill to chat with Georgia Engel, who played the lovably naive Georgette Franklin Baxter on the CBS series from 1973 to 1977. Engel, who made her Broadway debut as Minnie Fay during the original run of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly!—opposite the Dollys of Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman—is currently back on Broadway in the award-winning The Drowsy Chaperone. Engel plays the somewhat dotty Mrs. Tottendale, and displays her knack for comedy as well as her vocal, ukulele, and spitting skills. My lengthy interview with the lovely Engel, who was even kinder and funnier than I had expected her to be, follows.
How did the role of Mrs. Tottendale come about for you?
Georgia Engel: Well, a couple of years ago my agent called and said a friend of his wondered if I would do a reading — and that was [Drowsy co-producer] Roy Miller. So, I did the first reading for NAMT, and I was in on it from the very beginning as it went through two readings before we played it in Los Angeles last year and then brought it in [to New York] this spring.
How much has your role changed since the first reading?
Engel: It actually evolved quite a bit. The actual character didn't, but the material did. We had a number in Los Angeles ["I Remember Love"] that was completely cut. They put it on the CD, which is nice, because it's a lovely, lovely number. But we found out, all of us together, [that although] it had been a big, big hit during the readings, when the whole show was physicalized, it was actually too delicate a number to stand a physicalization. It came too late in the show, so they needed a zippier, quicker number, and that's how we got "Love Is Always Lovely." [Laughs.] And that kind of thing is most interesting to me because I've never had the privilege of being in on a show from the very beginning. Although I don't mean to imply that I was in on this from the very beginning because Bob Martin and his friends did it in Canada for about six years. But once it came to the States, I was in on it from the very beginning, and I consider that a huge privilege.
Did you come up with a history or back story for the character or for the actress who plays the character?
Engel: We all had to be part of improvisations of coming up with who the actors were that were playing the characters, but I'm not very good at that kind of thing, so I did very little. [Laughs.] So it ends up there's very little [known] about her! . . . I forgot to tell you, in Los Angeles I had a whole ukulele number. They sent me to ukulele lessons, and dear [musical director] Phil Reno would give me ukulele practice every single day, but it ended up I never got good enough to look away from the ukulele, so my face was down all the time, so they were glad to get rid of the ukulele.
You do get to play it a little at the end of the show.
Engel: The funny thing is it never got the laugh that it gets in the show now — coming in as a surprise — once she says she doesn't play the ukulele.
And, then, of course, there's the spit-take scene. Had you ever done anything like that previously?
Engel: [Laughs] Never!
What was rehearsal like?
Engel: It was horrifying for me at first to be honest with you. The thought of spitting on people was just not funny to me at all. The funny thing is I've been doing it now for so long, and the audience seems to enjoy it so much, and it's so silly, but it all works because the Man in Chair says he hates to see it, so it gives people the option to either hate it or relish the lowbrowness of it. [Laughs.]
How does your co-star feel about it?
Engel: Actually, Edward Hibbert, who's away for two months right now, we kind of developed it together. And he had to learn to do it back to me. And, believe it or not, it's not that easy. We had months to work on it. They put us in slickers, and oftentimes I would get myself as wet as I would get him. And now my new butler, who's very, very wonderful — Noble Shropshire — he's having a great difficulty getting the water to move over to me. It's a little harder than it looks, even though it looks so silly.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character or a favorite moment in the show as a whole?
Engel: I guess the moment that's the most fun for me — although I'm not doing anything, all the actors are frozen — is that last monologue of the Man in Chair, when he talks about his [former] wife and says, "Who are you? Who are you? And then you finally say it out loud." That particular writing builds so wonderfully that I just love being onstage and hearing how he plays it each night, a little bit different to go with how the audience is. It always builds so beautifully. I just so love good comedy that I love just being in the presence of someone who is a master at it, and my friend Bob truly is a master of comic timing.
Did you think Drowsy would be the hit that it's become when you were first working on the show?
Engel: Do you know, there have been so many little projects that you hope will be something, and nothing comes of it that you learn in life not to expect anything but to still have the highest expectations, too. What I mean is, not to lose hope but not to be devastated if it doesn't [happen]. And that actually was my feeling. I was loving the experience so much and loving the people so much and loving the actual work so much that I knew that even if it closed, I would come away much richer for the experience.
But all the good things I've been involved in — from Mary Tyler Moore to Everybody Loves Raymond to this — at the time you're doing it, you're not aware of something being real special. It takes a little bit of hindsight. And now that people are loving it and coming every night and full houses are giving it such a wonderful reception, that's icing on the cake. I don't have that kind of vision where I can say, "Oh, I knew it was going to be the biggest hit in the world" — because sometimes I've been involved with things that I thought might be and they weren't. So I'm not sure it's something that you can be sure of, but I have to tell you this company does not take it for granted. . . . Everybody knows it's kind of a magical time we're in right now.
Do you think the show has a message or what does it say to you?
Engel: In a very, very, very broad sense, anybody who has a great passion for anything — and is opinionated about it because they love it so much — is the Man in Chair. That is a universal quality when you care about something so much that it lifts you. You can take it away from theatre to arts to books to gardening to dancing. Whatever you have a great passion of, you will always find Man in Chair because it's the love of their life that lights up their life. In that sense — and Bob does such a wonderful job of pulling in the audience to absolutely care about him, even though the character is overly opinionated . . . you just love him. [Laughs.] . . . A lot of people are moved to tears at the very end, and I think that's what lifts this show so much higher than just being a fun song-and-dance confection is that someone can care about something so much. And we all have different things that we care about so much, and we do need those things to hold onto when life gets hard. . . . I'm that way when I go see movies — I love things where I can laugh and cry both. I think everybody loves that — where there's poignancy as well as tremendous laughter. That lifts [Drowsy] to a higher level than just a twenties musical would be.
Going back a bit, you made your Broadway debut opposite Ethel Merman. . .
Engel: Well, hardly opposite! [Laughs.] I was Minnie Fay [in Hello, Dolly!], and that was a nice part. . . . Actually, I always put Ethel Merman [in my bio] because it gets a little wordy, but it was the last year of the original Broadway run, and they'd had all those different Dollys after Carol Channing, and this last company replaced the Pearl Bailey company that had been running for two years. I guess Ethel Merman couldn't come in for a few months, so for the first couple months we did it with Phyllis Diller, and I don't ever mean to shortchange her because I love Phyllis Diller, but Ethel Merman was there nine or ten months of the year.
What was it like being onstage with Merman?
Engel: It was so wonderful. It was a time when the way she worked, even back then, as magical as it was, it was almost an anachronism because she never needed microphones. Somebody took a pirated audio tape of that show, and many, many years later gave it to me. And the only one in the whole show you could hear — and they must have been in the very back row of the theatre — was Ethel Merman! [Laughs.] It's so funny that her dear voice just carried, but nobody else's did. . . .
And, also, she did a kind of acting that she didn't absolutely need somebody else to do her acting. [Laughs.] I've worked with a few people like that. At first it's not very fun — she didn't look at me. There was a scene where Minnie Fay danced around Dolly at the end of the big waltz number. At first she kind of just looked at my forehead, but later on in the run she got to like me, and so she'd start looking at me. I remember being thrilled because it's so much more fun to look at people onstage. But in that old-fashioned kind of acting, you could just look at their forehead, and it would be fine because you're really playing it for the audience. In later years when I would see her on Love Boat or on television, I would feel so sad because it wasn't the right medium for her. She was so larger than life that she really needed a stage where she could reach the rafters. That was her great gift. The television got too close into her face and it made everything seem like bad acting when it wasn't bad acting, it was just a different kind of acting.
How would you say Broadway has changed from when you were in Dolly! to doing Drowsy now?
Engel: It's just in a funny, funny way, and I guess it's a very accommodating way for actors in long runs. I can't tell you how surprised I am that everybody [will have a vacation this] summer. . . . Miss Merman wasn't out the whole time [of her run], and I wasn't out either. This was way back in 1970 when I was just starting my career, but nobody left. Nobody was out unless they were sick. There was no such thing as a vacation — you just played until you played yourself into the ground and then resigned or the show closed. [Laughs.] Because I learned that so early on, and it's not anything she ever said to me, it was something I picked up from her example. You got the feeling she wouldn't ever want to be out because she wouldn't want to disappoint the people that came to see her, and that has just carried with me. So here I am in a quandary about what to do when my week's vacation comes. I probably won't have a vacation — I'll probably just do a pilot or something for TV and use my vacation for that.
Now we have to talk about one of my favorite TV shows, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. How did the role of Georgette come about for you?
Engel: I was in an Off-Broadway show called The House of Blue Leaves, and believe it or not, one night we went to the theatre, and the theatre had burned down! It was in the Tuckamore Warehouse Theatre on East 4th Street, a very not-so-nice part of town at that time. When my dad and mom came to see this show — my dad was an Admiral stationed on Governor's Island — because he was an Admiral, he had a driver. And the driver parked in the neighborhood. They went to see the show, and when we came out to the car, all the hubcaps were gone. [Laughs.] We felt lucky to still have tires on the car. So, this wonderful, wonderful show, the theatre burned down, and they decided — instead of waiting for the theatre to be constructed again — they took the company intact to Los Angeles to a theatre right in Hollywood called the Huntington Hartford. It's changed names now, but it was at Vineland and Hollywood right off Broadway.
So we did the show there, and it was really, really well-received. They put us up in a very old, old-fashioned Art Deco hotel, and I would walk to Broadway and take ballet class every morning. That's always been part of my routine, and Mary Tyler Moore was in the ballet class, but I didn't recognize her because she had no make-up on and her hair was in a ballet bun. She came up to me one morning and said, "My husband and I and a few friends saw you in your play last night, and we loved it so much." I was thrilled, but finished the run, put it out of my mind, and six months later I was collecting unemployment in New York and got asked to do a three-day role [on The Mary Tyler Moore Show]. My manager at the time, who's long since gone, didn't think I should go because it would cost me money to go out there for such a little part. But even as a very young person, my instincts knew that sometimes you pay for the privilege of working with the best. I knew that they were the finest comedians, and so I went out to do my tiny little part. I was originally [hired to play] a girlfriend of Rhoda's from the department store, and they were having a goodbye party [for Rhoda]. And then Rhoda doesn't [end up leaving]. In the big party scene they just happened to put me beside Ted Knight, and it broke everybody up. They just thought it was so funny. And then they wrote me into the tag and gave me a few little lines. I had never done any other television, [so] I didn't realize what a rare thing had just happened.
I ended up having a very sweet little debut part on that, but I had to go back the very next day because I teach Sunday school on Sunday mornings. I just did my three days and went home. On Monday morning I got a ring on the tenth floor of my apartment building, and usually there's never a ring at your door because nobody can get beyond the doorman. But this day, there was a ring at my door and there was this huge potted plant that was as tall as I was with a little card. And inside it said, "Welcome to the MTM Family." And that was before anybody had negotiated — not that I was hard to get because I was employed — they signed me on right away. [Laughs.] They groomed me. I started doing seven out of ten and then ten out of thirteen for the rest of the run.
Can you explain what seven out of ten, ten out of thirteen means?
Engel: Seven out of every ten shows, and then by the time you get ten out of every thirteen shows, you're literally a regular. At that time they did more episodes than they do today. On Raymond, I think they only did 22 per season, but we did 26 during "The Mary Tyler Moore" years. . . . I loved those people so much. And, do you know, all of them except Ted Knight, who's passed on, and Ed [Asner] have come to see [The Drowsy Chaperone] in the past few weeks.
What were their reactions to it?
Engel: Mary loved it so much. And Valerie [Harper], too — they didn't know each other had come. Betty [White] and Gavin [MacLeod] came in Los Angeles, and Gavin came again in New York. They were actually considering Gavin to be the butler, but then they thought he was too lovable. [Laughs.] It was exciting to see them all again. They're the kinds of friends that you may not see for even a few years and then you carry on where you last saw each other. I do consider them lifetime friends.
Do you remember how the MTM episode came about where you performed "Steam Heat"? Did they know you had a musical background?
Engel: Yes, but I don't know if you know that Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie and I took ballet class every day during our lunch hour, and then the prop men would make us a little lunch after. Instead of tiring us out, it actually invigorated us. There's so much sitting around in television that it was a wonderful way to keep in shape, and Mary was a lovely, lovely dancer, and Valerie, too, had been in the chorus on Broadway for years. So we just continued our dancing, and Mary knew I loved dancing, and [that episode] was a tremendous gift. I once asked whose idea it was, and I think she told me it was hers and ["MTM" creator] Jim Brooks, and I loved them so much for it.
That show was running over because there was so much good in the show that week that they were going to have to cut my dance number. And I was heartbroken because I'd spent weeks learning it and going into a studio and recording it. And dear Ted wasn't going to let anything of his get cut because he liked his stuff, and it was Mary and Ed Asner that had their scene cut, and their scene was so wonderful. That's telling you a love story — because of their unselfishness, that's why that little number got on. And what's nice is the editor ended up getting an Emmy for editing that show because it couldn't have been an easy show to edit when there was so much going on.
Before you spoke a little bit about how Broadway has changed. I wonder how you found TV had changed over time — from Mary to Raymond.
Engel: I have to tell you it was so many years in between — and so many hard years for me in between. I did three short-lived series, and you always gain from every experience you have — good, bad or indifferent — there's always life lessons to be learned. But once I was on Everybody Loves Raymond, even though I was only on a few times a year, I felt, "My goodness, this is like The Mary Tyler Moore Show was. The stars are so confident in their gifts that they can afford to be generous to other people." So that was one experience where it hadn't changed at all. The only thing that had changed is because [creator] Phil [Rosenthal] is a connoisseur and likes to share four-star food with people, the food was incredible on Everybody Says Raymond. [Laughs.] There was four-star restaurant food the entire day, from morning to night on the set. So that's the only funny difference. We didn't think about food that much on MTM. There'd be the usual little candy and popcorn late in the week when you do the producers' run-through, but on "Raymond" there was food non-stop, but really beautiful, delicious, healthy food.
Are you based in New York?
Engel: Yes, New York is my permanent legal address—it always has been. The funny thing is they used to kid me on The Mary Tyler Moore Show that I would go back to New York whenever I could. And now Mary has made New York her home for a long, long time. She loves it, too. Once you fall in love with New York, you may love going to L.A. to work and you love going to all the other different places to work, but every time I'm away and come back, when you're going in a taxi over one of the bridges into Manhattan, there's always excitement about coming back to New York.