OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: 'Bob Newhart' actress Marcia Wallace, 70, gone too soon

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-10-31T00:00:00Z 2013-10-31T12:00:07Z OFFBEAT: 'Bob Newhart' actress Marcia Wallace, 70, gone too soonBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

What used to be the lone Halloween classic annual airing of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," has in recent decades, shared the animated spotlight with Bart Simpson's annual "Treehouse of Horror" on the FOX cartoon series "The Simpsons."

Earlier this month, the 2013 broadcast boasted "Treehouse of Horror XXIV." And as of Feb. 9, 1997, "The Simpsons" even surpassed "The Flintstones" as the longest running prime-time animated series in broadcast history. But after this season, one familiar voice from "The Simpsons" will disappear, yet live on in syndication broadcast infamy.

As reported by the Associated Press last weekend, Marcia Wallace, the voice of scoffing schoolteacher Edna Krabappel on "The Simpsons," whose wise-cracking characters on "The Bob Newhart Show" and other prime-time hits endeared her to generations of TV viewers, died at age 70. Her 71st birthday would have been tomorrow.

"Simpsons" executive producer Al Jean said in a statement Saturday her "irreplaceable character," the fourth-grade teacher who contended with Bart Simpson's constant antics, would be retired from the show. Despite fighting ill health in recent months, the show's producers said she managed to record dialogue for her character which will be heard in future episodes this season.

The longtime TV actress' credits ranged from playing witty Chicago receptionist Carol on Newhart's show to appearances on Candice Bergen's "Murphy Brown."

Her casting trademarks were her towering height, chrysanthemum-like red curly perm hairdo and her wide-mouth, toothy smile. In the second season of "The Brady Bunch," for an episode that aired Jan. 15, 1971, Wallace played a store clerk who sells middle daughter Jan Brady an obnoxious bushy, curly black wig, with Jan originally telling the clerk "I'd like something crazy, like the one you're wearing," only to have Wallace deadpan with: "I'm not wearing a wig. It's my real hair." (When Jan says "I'm sorry," Wallace replies with "Not half as sorry as I am.")

Wallace was also a favorite game show guest, frequenting seats on the most popular shows of the 1970s like "Match Game," "Hollywood Squares," "Card Sharks" and "The $10,000 Pyramid."

But since the 1990s, it was Wallace's starring voice on "The Simpsons" that a new generation of fans associated her with, including her trademark "Ha!" that punctuated teacher Mrs. Krabappel's frequent wisecracks, and her character's classroom catchphrase, "Do what I mean, not what I say."

Wallace always retained the gift to make herself and others laugh, despite a lifetime of battles and a roller-coaster resume. Her career in television didn't gel until she was almost 30. In 1985, she was diagnosed and began an arduous battle with breast cancer -- a fight she won and talked with me about during an interview in October 1999 when she spoke at Silver Cross Hospital and Medical Centers in Joliet, Ill., for a series conducted as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

She waited more than 40 years to get married, walking down the aisle in 1986 and then adopted a son in 1988.  But in 1993, fate planted the actress in another survival story when she lost her husband, hotelier Dennis Hawley, to pancreatic cancer.

GSN, cable's Game Show Network, is paying tribute to Wallace with a special morning marathon 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1 with game show episodes that featured Wallace and her quick wit, including four episodes of "Match Game," two episodes of "Password Plus" and two episodes of "The $100,000 Pyramid."

"If I had given up, I wouldn't be here with you today," the always upbeat Wallace said during our 1999 interview.

"My message to each person I meet is that you have to be willing to take charge of your own health. If you don't, no one else is going to do it for you."

Wallace's inspirational story and attitude put her in demand on the lecture circuit to speak about her life and the array of challenges she has met.

During her talks, the television star explained the importance of remaining positive in the face of disease, and the need to change unhealthy habits -- such as smoking, which she once did.

"I've also been dieting to lose weight," she told the audience in Joliet she spoke to in 1999.

"But so far in that department, you could say I'm a work in progress. Everyone has their problem areas and eating is one of my hobbies. I'm from Iowa and the great Midwest. To us, chocolate is a vegetable. After all, it come from a cocoa bean, doesn't it?"

Through relationship struggles, illness and career woes, Wallace said she relied on humor to keep a positive attitude.

"I worked so hard to get married," she said. "During my 30s, I only had three dates and none of them great. One of my boyfriends was a police officer who broke his foot breaking down an unlocked door, if that tells you anything."

As an unmarried and struggling actress, she said she became depressed after turning 40 upon reading a Yale study that found women over that age were more likely to be struck by lightning than get married.

"I thought to myself, 'Oh great, thanks for sharing,' " she said, when we chatted in 1999.

"That was after I was done with the run of Bob Newhart's show and I decided to take a job traveling with my good friend Jo Anne Worley in a play. The money was lousy. I think my contract was for $1.50 and a box of Chicklets per week. But we knew we would have fun working together."

Wallace said Worley, who also hails from the Midwest, from Lowell, Ind., made it her mission to find a husband for her friend, which was kind of a mixed blessing, Wallace joked, because "Jo Anne's standards weren't exactly high."

But it was Worley who introduced her to Dennis Hawley, a manager for a hotel chain who became Wallace's husband. During the couple's courtship, it was Hawley who stood by Wallace when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985.

"Compared to all of the wonderful technology that is available today, I feel like I had my breast cancer back in the Dark Ages," Wallace said in 1999.

"When my doctor first told me about the lump they have found, my first thought was that I was going to die. I remembered the women I had known growing up who had been hit with breast cancer and how disfiguring it had been. Those women who had to endure such ordeals are my heroes today."

Wallace said from her own initial ignorance, she emphasizes to women and men the importance of asking questions when faced with a health concern.

"There are no silly questions," Wallace told her lecture audiences.

"This is your life and your body, and you have a right to know anything you're not certain about. When I hear women say, 'I would rather die than lose my breast,' it hurts me. There is nothing more important than life. And there are options."

Rather than accepting her doctor's determination that she needed a full mastectomy, Wallace did her homework with help from Hawley and opted for a lumpectomy, a much less scarring and less painful procedure in which the malignant lump, not the entire breast, is removed.

From her experiences, Wallace was a proponent of regular checkups for women and encouraged females as young as teens to perform a monthly breast self-examination.

"It's important for women of every age to know what the dangers are of not knowing health risks," she said.

After surviving her bout with breast cancer, Wallace and Hawley married and immediately began thinking about a family.

"By that time in my life, I had about 17 minutes left for my child-bearing years," she said during our interview.

"I think I had one fertile egg left in my body and it was using a walker by that time. That's when we decided to adopt Mikey."

After six years of marriage, Marcia's husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1992.

"Only a small percentage of people survive pancreatic cancer, but I thought to myself, 'Why shouldn't Dennis be that one person who does?' " she said.

"It's just like in my career field, only 9 percent of the parts offered go to women over 40. Why shouldn't I be in that 9 percent?"

Despite their efforts, Hawley died in 1993 at age 47.

Wallace said she is glad she and her husband never hid the illness from their son, who was 5-years-old at the time.

"This has to be a family journey, a family disease," she said.

"We both knew that Mikey couldn't help but know that something wasn't right. When Dennis died at home, Mikey said, 'Let's call the fire department so they can use their hose to pour water on daddy and maybe he will wake up and grow some more.' "

Wallace said her husband shared her attitude about making the best of the time you have together.

"Dennis said: 'I hate this dying. But I'm glad we used our good china.' " she said.

"And he was right. We didn't wait for that trip to Paris or do all of those wonderful things we wanted to do. We lived life for now, rather than waiting for tomorrow."

The same year her husband died, Wallace received an Emmy Award for her work on "The Simpsons." She also began her full schedule of speaking engagements across the country.

"The mortality rates connected with these illnesses are dropping and that's from the information and awareness about early detection that's finally being shared with so many," she said.

"I love traveling and meeting so many great people. And if I can get even just one person to go in for a doctor's checkup as a preventive measure against future illness and disease, I've done what I set out to do."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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