Ann Guilbert established herself in popular consciousness as one in a string of American television's loopy next-door neighbors, launching a remarkable career as journeyman character actor across the gamut of narrative media. Guilbert emerged from an itinerant early life to find her calling at Stanford University, where she also met her eventual husband and career catalyst George Eckstein, later a successful TV producer. Eckstein produced her Broadway debut, the musical variety show "The Billy Barnes Revue," before she began landing one-off TV roles. In 1961, she arrived in style with a plum job as Millie Helper, the archetypal suburban busybody neighbor of Rob and Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66). She would make a living in regional theater and as a TV guest-star, with occasional returns to sitcoms, such as "The New Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1971), "The Fanelli Boys" (NBC, 1990-91) and, through much of the 1990s, "The Nanny" (CBS, 1993-99), an extended stint in which she played Fran Drescher's loopy grandmother. In 2005, she returned to Broadway in "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," which brought her to the attention of filmmaker Nicole Holofcener. The director gave her the scene-stealing role of a brazenly forthright nonagenarian neighbor in "Please Give" (2010), the critically lauded indie ensemble drama about the residents of a New York apartment building. Still remembered fondly for her place the other side of the Petries' picket fence in New Rochelle, Guilbert became the rare case of a working actress effecting dynamic, unique characters long into a storied career. Ann Morgan Guilbert died of pancreatic cancer on June 14, 2016. She was 87 years old.
Guilbert was born in Minneapolis, MN on Oct. 16, 1928, the only child of Cornelia and Dr. Gerald Guilbert, a physician employed by the U.S. Veteran's Administration who specialized in tuberculosis. Dr. Guilbert's job required the family to move frequently to cities with VA facilities, including Tucson, AZ; Asheville, North NC; Livermore, CA and El Paso, TX. The lack of stability and static set of friends prompted Ann to develop a rich imagination and penchant for make-believe. Upon graduating in 1946 from Solomon Juneau High School in Milwaukee, WI, she decided to follow her father into medicine, and that year matriculated at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, with the intent of becoming a nurse. But she found the curriculum difficult and, after winning a role in a stage adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," switched to a speech and drama major, going on to win leads in the department's productions of plays such as "The Petrified Forest." Also at Stanford, she met fellow theater major George Eckstein, a year her senior, and upon graduating in 1950, she joined him in Los Angeles, where he was attending law school. They wed the following year. Guilbert won a role in the L.A. musical variety cabaret act originated by the composer Billy Barnes and based on his many works, "The Billy Barnes Revue," which became an ongoing attraction and toured throughout California. Eckstein came aboard in 1959 as producer to open the show as an off-Broadway production in New York. The show eventually went officially to Broadway, playing at the John Golden and Lyceum theaters, and in 1960, enjoyed a U.K. run at the Lyric Theatre in London.
"The Billy Barnes Revue" had developed a fan since its early L.A. days in Carl Reiner, a writer-producer who in 1961 was putting together a new sitcom with comic actor Dick Van Dyke, and who kept Guilbert in mind when it came time to cast. She joined the ensemble of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as Millie Helper, the gab-prone, dithery wife of dentist Jerry Helper, the next-door neighbors of Dick Van Dyke's Rob Petrie and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore). With Millie as a futzing 1950s-stereotype foil to Laura's more mod, Capri-adorned mom, the Petries' hijinx at home and on the fictional TV comedy on which Rob worked turned the show into a hit in its second season, remaining in the Nielsen ratings' top 20 primetime shows through 1966, when it shuttered. So too, that year, did Guilbert's marriage. She and Eckstein - who had become the successful producer of ABC drama "The Fugitive" (1963-67) - divorced after having two children, Hallie and Nora. After bouncing back to series TV with the sitcom "Hey, Landlord (NBC, 1966-1967), she returned to regional theater. On the screen, she popped up mostly in featured one-off work in popular series of the day, doing guest turns on "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68), "Dragnet 1967" (NBC, 1967-1970), "Room 222" (ABC, 1969-1974), "Adam-12" (NBC, 1968-1975) and I Dream of Jeannie" (NBC, 1965-1970), in addition to the odd venture into film comedies such as "How Sweet It Is!" (1968) and "Viva Max" (1969). In 1969, Guilbert remarried to actor Guy Raymond. She landed on a series again in "The New Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1971), playing Griffith's assistant as he took the job of mayor of a small North Carolina town, but the show confounded audiences, as it was eerily similar to, yet taking place outside of, the Mayberry continuum of his much-loved previous CBS sitcom. The show lasted only 10 episodes.
She would make the occasional foray into TV sitcoms over the next few decades, doing guest turns on the likes of "Maude" (CBS, 1972-78), "Barney Miller" (ABC, 1975-1982), "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993), "Newhart" (CBS, 1982-1990), "Blossom" (NBC, 1991-95) "Home Improvement" (ABC, 1991-99), "Empty Nest" (NBC, 1988-1995) and "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1990-98). Guilbert continued to do theater work, becoming a rep regular at the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, CA, and Denver Center Theatre Company. She played opposite husband Raymond, conspicuously as a frontier Texas married couple, in the 1984 Denver Center original production of Mark Harelik's play, "The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album," which they would go on to tour around the country. In 1988, her performance in the play's run at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, won Guilbert the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress, given to outstanding performers in DC-area productions. In 1990, she won the role of an overbearing matriarch on the "The Fanelli Boys," an NBC sitcom following four Italian brothers of varying personality-type living together; and from 1992-94 she popped up in a recurring role as a denizen of fictional Rome, WI, in the quirky CBS drama, "Picket Fences" (1992-96).
From 1993 through 1999, Guilbert morphed into television's definitive Jewish grandmother. She played the retirement community-dwelling, cigarette-smoking Yetta Rosenberg, frequently popping into the life of granddaughter Fran Drescher on the CBS sitcom, "The Nanny." She also showed up in a supporting role in the septuagenarian feature comedy, "Grumpier Old Men" (1995). Raymond died in 1997, and after "The Nanny" ceased production, Guilbert largely withdrew from screen work. She returned to the theater, most notably in 2002 by playing a daffy, elderly fan/stalker of a faded B-movie star in "Play Yourself" at New York's Century Center for the Performing Arts; and in 2005 appeared on Broadway in "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," in which she played a periodically intrusive next-door neighbor, a deliriously foul-mouthed woman embittered towards her dead son and the step-daughter she still lives with. That performance drew the attention of indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener. After a few more guest-star roles, among them "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO, 2000- ) and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ), Holofcener cast Guilbert in "Please Give," the slice-of-life comic drama about the residents of a New York apartment building. Guilbert played the amusingly crotchety occupant of one of the units recently purchased by yuppie neighbors Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener, who somewhat guiltily look forward to her death so that they might renovate. The film won raves upon its screening at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and, in early 2011, won the Independent Spirit Awards' Robert Altman Award for best work by a director, casting director and ensemble cast. Guilbert co-starred on the dark comedy "Getting On" (HBO 2013-15) as an aging hospital patient. Her final television work came with a recurring role on the sitcom "Life In Pieces" (CBS 2015- ). Ann Guilbert died of pancreatic cancer in Los Angeles in June 14, 2016. She was 87 years old.