The face of diminutive American actress of stage, screen, and television Nancy Walker (b. Philadelphia, PA, May 10, 1922; d. Studio City, CA, March 25, 1992) is probably best known to television-watchers as that of Rosie the diner waitress in twenty years of ads for Bounty paper towels (“the quicker picker-upper”). But she had an important career on Broadway in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s, earning two Tony® nominations, and starred on television in the 1970s as Rhoda’s Ida Morgenstern.
The mother of Anna Myrtle Swoyer died when the child was an infant, leaving the girl who would become Nancy Walker with a life-long sense of abandonment. She and her sister, Betty Lou Barto, also a performer, grew up traveling from city to city with their vaudevillian father. Late in Anna Myrtle’s teens, the little family was staying in New York City while Dewey Swoyer was playing in Hellzapoppin, The Screamlined Revue (1938–41) as part of the comedy team Barto & Mann. Although she would be difficult to cast, being only four feet, ten inches high, Anna decided to audition for George Abbott for a role in his new show starring June Allyson, Best Foot Forward (1941). Abbott mistook her for another actress by the name of Walker, and hired her to play the Blind Date. The young woman adopted the other actress’s name, put her own nickname in front of it, and debuted as Nancy Walker.
The Hollywood debut followed the Broadway debut when Best Foot Forward was filmed in 1943 with Allyson and Lucille Ball. That same year, Allyson and Walker both appeared in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney vehicle, Girl Crazy. Walker made one more movie, Broadway Rhythm, singing a Leonard Bernstein number, “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet,” before returning to Broadway in On the Town in 1944. Walker practically stole the show as New York cabbie Hildy Esterhazy, chasing after one of the sailors (“I Can Cook, Too!”).
After a short run in Barefoot Boy With Cheek (1947), Walker took a starring role in Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ (1948). In the midst of it she developed vocal problems and started going to a vocal coach, David Craig, but for reasons unexplained did not marry him on the spot. Three weeks after Look, Ma closed, she was married to actor Gar Moore; that relationship ended in divorce less than a year later. By January of 1951, though, the path to marriage with Craig was apparently cleared, and they enjoyed forty-one years together until her death. They had one daughter, Miranda.
Nancy Walker starred steadily in several fairly successful Broadway musicals and revues up until about 1962: she replaced Helen Gallagher as Gladys Bumps in Pal Joey in 1952, got a Tony® nomination for her part in Phoenix ’55, appeared in a “straight” play Fallen Angels in 1956, sang in Copper and Brass (1957) and The Girls Against the Boys (1959), and picked up another Tony® nomination in 1961 for her performance with Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi. A show-tune album she recorded in 1959, “I Hate Men”, has the reputation of having one of the worst covers in history. She also turned in a number of film and television performances during this period: Lucky Me (1954) with Doris Day, The Red Skelton Show (1955), The Kraft Television Theatre (1958), The Tab Hunter Show (1960).
Except for some fine Broadway play revivals (The Cherry Orchard 1968, The Cocktail Party 1968), the decade of the ’60s was not particularly kind to Nancy Walker, but when she started to appear as Rosie the Waitress in Bounty commercials, her career took off again. She guested in seven episodes of Family Affair, on Love, American Style, The Partridge Family, and created what (aside from Rosie) was to become her most memorable role, Ida Morgenstern, first on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1973), then on its spin-off, Rhoda (1974–1978). From 1971 to 1976 she was also a regular as Mildred the maid on McMillan and Wife. She even had her own show for a short time in 1976, and directed some episodes of Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, and Alice. Altogether she earned seven Emmy Award® and four Golden Globe® nominations, but never won outright.
Thereafter, Nancy Walker made two outstanding if anomalous and unrelated ventures into film. In 1976 she played the unforgettable deaf-and-dumb maid Yvette in Neil Simon’s comedy masterpiece Murder by Death with Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, and Estelle Winwood. In 1980 she directed her first and last feature film, Can’t Stop the Music. It won the 1981 Razzie Awards for Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay, with a nomination for Walker as Worst Director; in 2005 it won the Razzie for Worst Musical in 25 Years.
Ultimately Nancy Walker’s career spanned five decades. One of her last appearances was on The Golden Girls in 1987, as Sophia’s sister Angela, for which she received her eighth Emmy Award® nomination. Her last regular TV series was the sitcom True Colors (1990); during its run she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Walker died just a few weeks before her 70th birthday, missing only the last episode. Her ashes were scattered in the Virgin Islands.