(b. 10 May 1922 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 25 March 1992 in Studio City, California), diminutive, energetic stage comedienne of the 1940s and wisecracking television perennial of the 1970s.
Walker was born Anna Myrtle Swoyer, one of two daughters of Stuart Swoyer, an acrobat, and Myrtle Lawler, a dancer. Her father changed his name to Dewey Barto when he joined the vaudeville team the Three Bartos, and the family took on this name. The descendant of a circus clown, acrobats, and bareback riders, Walker supposedly first crawled onto the stage during one of her mother’s performances when she was ten months old. Myrtle Swoyer died in 1930, and Walker grew up traveling on the vaudeville circuit with her father. She was educated on and off between 1929 and 1940 at the Professional Children’s School in New York, where she used the first name Nan. She left school shortly before graduation to pursue a career as a singer.
Her big break, and her stage name, came to her at age nineteen when she auditioned for the theatrical producer George Abbott, who was casting a college musical comedy, Best Foot Forward. Accidentally introduced as Miss Walker, she presented the producer with a peppy rendition of “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four.” Abbott saw the potential in her small frame and offbeat looks. He created for her the role of “Blind Date,” a comic coed who charmed critics and audiences–if not all of the men at Best Foot’s fictional college–when the play opened in October 1941.
Walker went to Hollywood for the film version of the play in 1943; she also made a few other pictures, including Girl Crazy in 1943 and Broadway Rhythm in 1944. Her looks were not conventional, however, and she was most at home in comic roles on Broadway, where she remained for most of the 1940s and 1950s. Probably her greatest success was as a man-hunting taxi driver romancing one of the sailors in the 1944 musical On the Town, but she was praised as well for her work in Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ (1948) and Phoenix ’55 (1955). The latter was written by the composer and vocal coach David Craig, whom Walker had married on 29 January 1951 after a brief marriage to actor Gar Moore in 1947 or 1948. The Craigs had a daughter in 1953.
Walker worked sporadically as an actress in the 1960s, appearing on television variety shows and gaining particular success on the stage in Do Re Mi (1960), a satire about the jukebox business, with Phil Silvers. She also took a turn at directing plays; her Broadway directorial debut, UTBU, was produced in 1966. She later admitted that her acting career at this time was stalled. “I couldn’t get arrested,” she told a New York Times reporter in 1973. “I just couldn’t get work. And, I must say, neither could Bert Lahr. He was selling potato chips on TV. So I thought, ‘Why not commercials?’”
In 1970 she and Craig moved to Los Angeles, and the actress became the television spokesperson for Bounty paper towels. As the eponymous proprietress of Rosie’s Diner, Walker successfully extolled the virtues of “the quicker picker-upper.” She was happy and not at all defensive about the visibility the commercials brought her. “One minute’s work done well is just as important as one hour,” she said. “Look, if it were a bad minute, I’d feel terrible, because I get paid very well, and that would be cheating. I’m not cheating anybody. I mean, an artist is an artist no matter what he does.”
The role of Rosie led to others. Walker may have been the most visible performer on American television in the early to mid-1970s. She was a semi-regular on Family Affair from 1970 to 1971, playing a housekeeper to Brian Keith’s bachelor father. She moved on to the role for which she is best known among fans of situation comedy, Ida Morgenstern, the mother of Rhoda, first as a guest star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1974) and then as a regular on its spin-off, Rhoda (1974-1976, with a return in 1977 for a season). A nagging Jewish mother with a heart of gold, Ida was a more fully fleshed-out character than Walker’s other television alter ego of the period, the snoopy housekeeper Mildred on the comedy-detective series McMillan and Wife (1971-1976).
In 1973 Walker became one of the first women to direct a situation comedy, joining the Directors Guild of America after directing her first episode of Mary Tyler Moore. She went on to direct episodes oí Rhoda, Alice, and 13 Queens Boulevard, as well as one motion picture, Can’t Stop the Music (1980).
In the 1976–1977 season, Walker quit Rhoda and McMillan to star in a situation comedy of her own, The Nancy Walter Show, in which she played the head of a talent agency who juggles business and family concerns. After its swift cancellation, she moved on in the same season to the equally short-lived Blanshy’s Beauties.
Although she never regained her near-ubiquity of the early 1970s, Walker continued to act on television, appearing as a guest star and occasional regular on programs such as Fantasy Island, Love Boat, Golden Girls, and Mama’s Boy. Her last ongoing role was as the caustic mother (and mother-in-law) of an interracial couple in True Colors (1990–1992), a part she played in a wheelchair as her health deteriorated. She died of lung cancer on 25 March 1992 in Studio City and her ashes were scattered over St. Thomas Island.
Walker was in many ways held back by her comic persona and lack of beauty-pageant looks: she was often typecast, first as a plain, funny man hunter, later as a wise and wisecracking middle-aged shrew. Nevertheless, she made the best of her roles and carved out a space for herself as a performer, projecting humor, intelligence, and energy on stage and screen. “I can’t tell anyone else how to live,” she said in 1975, “but I did the best I could and it’s not even over yet.”
The Billy Rose Theater Collection of the New York Public Library has clipping files on Nancy Walker. Other helpful sources include a New York Times profile by John Gruen (14 Oct. 1973), an essay in Current Biography 1965, and biographical essays in the Directors Series section of Films in Review (Aug.–Sept. 1980) and in Action (July-Aug. 1975). Obituaries are in the New York Times (26 Mar. 1992) and Variety (30 Mar. 1992).
Tinky “Dakota” Weisblat