Performer of stage, screen, and television, Alice Ghostley passed yesterday at the age of 81 after a long struggle with colon cancer. She is perhaps best known for her roles as Esmerelda on Bewitched and Cousin Alice on Mayberry R.F.D..
Ghostley was born in Eve, Missouri on April 14, 1926. She spent most of her childhood in Henryetta, Oklahoma. She attended the University of Oklahoma, but ended her studies to pursue her acting career. Her first big break was in the Broadway production Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952. Besides playing characters in its various skits, Ghostley also sang the song "The Boston Beguine." Although she rarely displayed the talent in her roles in sitcoms and movies, Ghostley had a gifted singing voice.
While Ghostley was perhaps best known to the general public for her many parts in sitcoms and movies, she also had an extensive stage career. Among the Broadway productions she appeared in were Shangri-La, The Beauty Part, The Sign in Sidney Burnstein's Window, and Annie. She was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role in The Beauty Part in 1963. She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role in The Sign in Sidney Burnstein's Window in 1965.
Of course, despite an acclaimed stage career, Ghostley was perhaps best known for her roles on television. She made her first appearance on the small screen in 1953 in an episode of the series Freedom Rings. She played one of the ugly stepsisters in the 1957 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and appeared twice on The Hallmark Hall of Fame (once reprising her role from Broadway's Shangri-La. It was in the Sixties that her television career really took off. She guest starred on such shows as Car 54, Where Are You, The U.S. Steel Hour, Naked City, and Get Smart. By the early Seventies she started playing recurring roles on shows. It was in 1970 that she took the part of Cousin Alice on Mayberry R.F.D.. In 1970 she would also join the cast of Bewitched, as timid witch and housekeeper to the Stevens Esmeralda. Throughout the Seventies and into the Nineties she guest starred on such shows as Nichols, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Good Times, Trapper John M.D., Diagnosis Murder, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She had the recurring role of Bernice on Designing Women and Irna on Evening Shade. She was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for playing Bernice on Designing Women.
Ghostley also had an extensive movie career. Her first feature film appearance was in the classic To kill a Mockingbird, where she played Aunt Stephanie. She would go onto appear in My Six Loves, The Flim-Flam Man, Rabbit Test, Grease, and The Odd Couple II.
Ghostley was an immensely talented character actress who could play a wide variety of roles. Unlike many character actors who often found themselves playing the same sort of roles over and over, Ghostley played a wide array of parts in her career. This can perhaps best be seen in contrasting what may be her two best known roles. As Cousin Alice on Mayberry R.F.D., she was a self-sufficient woman (she had served in the Army for years) with a large number of talents (from cooking to music), which she could all perform equally well. As Esmeralda on Bewitched, she was exceedingly shy (she would literally fade from view any time Darrin was around) and even a bit inept when it came to performing witchcraft. Despite the vast difference in the roles, Ghostley played both equally well. She was a very gifted actress, with a talent particularly for comedy. I doubt she will be forgotten any time soon.