You don't have to have met Ann Morgan Guilbert to appreciate her piquant performance in the movie Please Give, playing Andra, a 91-year-old crank whose Manhattan neighbors wish her dead so that they could add her apartment to theirs. But the contrast between Andra, orange-haired, irritable and vexing, and Ann, the gracious grandmother opening the door of a Tudor-style home in L.A.'s Pacific Palisades, makes it clear that Guilbert has sustained more than six decades as an actor by playing something other than herself.
Guilbert rather famously played grumps and dingbats in sitcom television. For Baby Boomers raised on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Guilbert remains the busybody next door, Millie Helper, eyes wide, lips pursed and hands flying. For '90s fans of The Nanny, she was Fran Drescher's garishly garbed grandmother Yetta, a chain-smoker with intermittent senility.
"She steals the show,"Please Give writer and director Nicole Holofcener says of Guilbert's cliché-free portrayal as the caustic and exasperating Andra. "She gets all the really big laughs." More than that, Guilbert gives Andra such humanity that she trumps the moral minimalists who are the movie's other characters. Audience members are likely to wish some of them dead, rather than Andra.
Guilbert, '50, is solicitous of a visitor's comfort as the housekeeper serves tea at a linen-clothed table. Her art- and book-filled home of 40 years reflects the larger world she's enjoyed while living a comfortable domestic life. The charming modern landscape on the wall was bought on one of many trips to Provence, and, at 81, she still prefers strolling the streets of Manhattan to trekking down her block for an ocean view.
Guilbert was cast in Please Give, shot two years ago in New York, after auditioning for Holofcener. "I hate that," Guilbert says of auditioning. Then adds with perfect timing, "But I'm getting used to it."
"She has a terrific sense of humor," says Holofcener, who looked at 20 to 30 actresses before hiring Guilbert. "Without that, the character [of Andra] would have been too dark. It's still necessary to have that great comic timing even if she's not cracking jokes."
Holofcener, in a phone interview, assures that Guilbert was nothing like her difficult character, despite the "crazy" challenges the film's modest $1 million budget posed. She recalls seeing Guilbert at the residential hotel where the production company had housed her. "I walked into where we'd put her up and said, 'Holy shit, this is where you're living? I am so embarrassed.'" (Guilbert agreed and moved in with Manhattan friends.) The spring shoot was challenging with long waits between takes and an entire day spent filming inside a car during a heat wave. Through it all, Holofcener says, "She was totally professional. She never complained."
Guilbert was born in Minneapolis but grew up "all over the country," an only child. Her father, a physician in the Veterans Administration, practiced wherever his specialty took them. "We always lived within view of a tuberculosis sanitarium." The family was in Livermore, Calif., when she first learned about Stanford. "I had a neighbor who went there and was just gaga about the University."
Guilbert intended to study nursing but nearly flunked out of chemistry her freshman year. At the same time, she was cast as Topsy in a Stanford production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. ("I did it in blackface, I'm ashamed to admit.") In The Petrified Forest, she took the lead role Bette Davis played in the 1936 movie.
Guilbert moved to Los Angeles when her first husband, fellow theater major George Eckstein, '49, attended law school. Beverly Hills native Eckstein's high school pal Jerry Paris had been cast as Rob and Laura Petrie's next-door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He urged Guilbert, then performing in comedy revues in Los Angeles and New York, to audition to play his wife. She landed the role of Millie, a housewife with too much time on her hands and not much on her mind, stuck at home in skirts while Mary Tyler Moore's Laura wore the Capri pants in the neighborhood.
"I was kind of phony," she says of Millie. "She wasn't real in the beginning. It got more real as the show went along." Guilbert stayed with the show for all five seasons. "The most fun of doing it," she says, "was sitting around the table with the writers; they were hysterical." The list of writers included the show's creator, Carl Reiner, Garry Marshall, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. All of them would be "tossing out one-liners, anybody could. I would toss some in sometimes. It was no-holds-barred."
Eckstein went on to produce such shows as The Fugitive and the TV movie Duel, director Steven Spielberg's feature-length debut. When the couple divorced in 1966, Guilbert, the suddenly single mom of two daughters, returned to the stage. "That's where I'm most comfortable."
"Her career took on meaning for her when she started doing theater," notes daughter Hallie Todd, an actress best known as Hilary Duff 's mother on Lizzy McGuire. "And her television work had meaning for others. She's been really blessed."
Guilbert began with regional theater in the Santa Maria and Solvang areas north of Los Angeles and did a number of seasons at the Denver Center Theater, including productions with her second husband, Guy Raymond, a "song and dance man" from New York who became a character actor in film and television. (He died in 1997.) Together they originated the roles in The Immigrant, a repertory theater favorite.
Then came The Nanny and Yetta. Guilbert, tastefully casual in a dusty rose velour pants outfit and scarf, laughs at the memory of the wildly garbed "old Jewish grandmother. I got together with the wardrobe lady and we decided she should just dress outrageously. So I just loved getting into the costumes because they were all really crazy—sequined jackets, jazzy pants and shoes, gold and silver purses, I just loved playing the character. And I had a boyfriend who was black and that was Ray Charles." She's still not sure why the legendary musician did the show. Besides singing "Mein Yiddishe Mama" in one of his four episodes, "they didn't give him anything to do."
Through the decades she's remained busy in a variety of guest spots on TV, including a part in Curb Your Enthusiasm's Kamikaze Bingo episode. In 2005 she was on Broadway in A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, with Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas, in a comic part that drew Holofcener's attention.
Guilbert enjoyed making the film in New York. "I love Manhattan. I don't like L.A. I never have liked L.A." She stays here because it's where her two daughters and two granddaughters live. She recently gave up driving, which provides even more reason to dislike L.A. The decision came at her doctor's request. But she refuses his other recommendation: quit her several-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day habit.
"Driving," Guilbert says, "is a danger to the rest of the world, but what I do to myself," she adds with a flash of her classic deadpan stare, "that's my business."
Age has its privileges, and Ann Morgan Guilbert plans to enjoy them, one puff at a time.
NANCY SPILLER is a writer and artist in Pacific Palisades, Calif. She is the author, most recently, of the novel Entertaining Disasters.