Helen Kleeb Eccentric Miss Mamie in 'The Waltons' 12 January 2004
Helen Kleeb, actress: born South Bend, Washington 6 January 1907; married first 1937 John Prendergast (died 1950; one son), secondly Elmer Garrison (died 2004); died Los Angeles 28 December 2003.
Gentility and grace from a bygone age were the abiding qualities represented by the eccentric Baldwin sisters, Miss Mamie and Miss Emily, in the wholesome, heartwarming family television drama The Waltons, which has remained a children's favourite on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 30 years.
Helen Kleeb was 65 when she landed the role of the older sister, Miss Mamie, and became used to younger cast members being overprotective towards her. "I know I am fragile because everyone is constantly telling me so," she said. "They also frequently warn me not to fall down."
The American series, about a hillfolk family who operate a sawmill in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Depression, was based on Earl Hamner Jnr's 1960 novel Spencer's Mountain, a fictionalised account of his childhood. Hamner, who narrated the screen adventures, explained how he created the satellite characters of Miss Mamie and Miss Emily:
Down on Route 6 between Esmont and Scottsville lived two ladies who made an elixir they referred to as their Papa's recipe. They were proud of their product and, whenever anyone would sample it, they would lean over, watch them and wait anxiously for a reaction. Was it smooth enough? Had it been a good batch? And was the recipe machine working? I wasn't old enough to sample the recipe, but my father and uncles stopped there quite often and they seemed to find the recipe much to their satisfaction.
Born in South Bend, Washington, in 1907, Helen Kleeb began her professional career on stage in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 21, by acting with the Henry Duffy Players for five years. In 1933, as theatre roles dried up during the Depression, she found radio work in Portland and, after marrying four years later, in San Francisco.
The death of her first husband in 1950 led Kleeb to Los Angeles and a screen career. As well as taking bit-parts in many films, she established herself as a character actress in classic American television series such as Dragnet (1952, 1953, 1958), I Love Lucy (1955) and Gunsmoke (1956, 1958, 1964), before landing a regular, supporting role as Miss Claridge in the law-firm sitcom Harrigan and Son (1960).
Guest-starring roles continued in what amounts to a roll-call of Golden Age television, including The Andy Griffith Show (1962), The Twilight Zone (1963), The Beverly Hillbillies (1964), The Munsters (1965, 1966), Perry Mason (1966), Dr Kildare (1966) and Bewitched (1966), until she was cast as Miss Mamie Baldwin in the Emmy-winning series The Waltons (1972-81).
Kleeb and Mary Jackson took over the roles of Miss Mamie and Miss Emily from Josephine Hutchinson and Dorothy Stickney, who had played them in the pilot television film, The Homecoming: a Christmas story (1971). They continued in the one-off sequels A Wedding on Walton's Mountain (1982), A Day for Thanks on Walton's Mountain (1982), A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (1993), A Walton Wedding (1995) and A Walton Easter (1997).
Kleeb's many feature-film appearances included parts in The Manchurian Candidate (alongside Frank Sinatra, 1962) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, 1982).