I never really got into Who’s the Boss?, mostly because I find Tony Danza kind of annoying, but another thing that really bothered me was that “sexpot grandma” was treated as enough personality trait to give the character without really delving much into her beyond that. I saw it before I ever saw Soap, and I already thought Katherine Helmond was capable of more. Little did I know how much more.
If I had a nickel for every time the phrase “ditzy matriarch” appeared in one of her obituaries, I could afford to actually buy the complete series of Soap. (Which I’d actually already contemplated this morning before the news broke, weirdly enough.) It’s not a bad description of Jessica Tate, to be fair, though the episodes I liked most tended to be the ones where they gave her a bit of depth. There were some really touching moments between her and Robert Guillaume over the course of the series, for example. I’ve never seen Benson, so I don’t know about the two episodes of that she did—but she actually directed more, and there is no overlap there.
She actually ran a summer stock company for a few years. Which means, yes, there was considerably more to her than Sexpot Grandma or Ditzy Matriarch. She worked with Terry Gilliam three times and Sir Alfred Hitchcock once. She played Emily Dickinson and Emma Borden, and she was working as recently as 2014, which reading between the lines has to have been well after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
She was nominated several times for Emmys but never won; she was nominated for a Tony and lost to Leora Dana for The Last of Mrs. Lincoln. (As, to my astonishment, did Maya Angelou, just a few years after writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; man, the stuff I learn writing these things.) From what I can tell, she spent most of her career simply putting in solid work, be it as an ex-mob wife on Batman: The Animated Series or a Model-T in the Pixar Cars universe or any of the other wide range of roles she played over the decades.
But she also learned the craft. She doesn’t have any writing credits, and she didn’t direct often, but she seems to have learned how to do it. She put in the work. Which mean if nothing else that she must have had respect for the people doing the jobs on set that she didn’t, and probably more people could stand to do that.