The New York Times
By William Grimes
May 24, 2016
Beth Howland, who made high anxiety an art form as the ditsy, accident-prone waitress Vera Louise Gorman on the 1970s and ’80s sitcom “Alice,” died on Dec. 31, 2015, in Santa Monica, Calif., her husband said on Tuesday. He had refrained from announcing her death earlier in keeping with her wishes. She was 74.
The cause was lung cancer, her husband, the actor Charles Kimbrough, said, adding that she had not wanted a funeral or a memorial service.
“It was the Boston side of her personality coming out,” Mr. Kimbrough said. “She didn’t want to make a fuss.”
Ms. Howland was a modestly successful television actress, with a handful of Broadway credits on her résumé, when Alan Shayne, the president of Warner Bros. Television, began casting roles for “Alice.” The CBS series, based on the 1974 Martin Scorsese film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” required three waitresses for Mel’s Diner, the locus of the action, one of them the high-strung Vera, played in the film by Valerie Curtin.
Mr. Shayne had seen Ms. Howland on Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” where, as a nervous prospective bride named Amy, she sang a lightning-fast patter song, “Getting Married Today.”
“Vera was written as a taut wire, ready to go to pieces at any minute,” he wrote in “Double Life: A Love Story From Broadway to Hollywood” (2011), a memoir written with Norman Sunshine. He recalled Ms. Howland, in the musical, “going to pieces in front of the audience’s eyes.”
Ms. Howland won the role, and for nine seasons, from 1976 to 1985, she kept television audiences amused with her wide-eyed, jumpy performances. Asked to describe her character, she told Knight Newspapers in 1979: “Insecure and vulnerable. Probably works the hardest of anybody in the diner. Very gullible, very innocent.”
Elizabeth Howland was born on May 28, 1941, in Boston. She studied dance at the Hazel Boone Studio and, after graduating from high school at 16, headed to New York, where she landed a replacement role as Lady Beth in “Once Upon a Mattress” and a role as a dancer in “Bye Bye Birdie.” She also appeared, alongside Valerie Harper and Donna Douglas, the future Elly May Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” as a dancer in the 1959 film “Li’l Abner.”
At 19 she married Michael J. Pollard, one of the lead actors in “Bye Bye Birdie.” The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her husband, who played the anchorman Jim Dial on the television series “Murphy Brown,” she is survived by a daughter from her first marriage, Holly Howland.
Small parts on Broadway and in the Off Broadway hit “Your Own Thing,” a musical version of “Twelfth Night,” led to her breakthrough role in “Company” and her tour-de-force rendition of “Getting Married Today.”
“It was a perfect song for me,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2004. “I’m not a singer, and it has maybe four notes.”
She performed it again when most of the original cast reassembled in 1993 for concert performances at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, Calif., and the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center.
After being cast as the wife of a character played by Bert Convy on an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she moved to Los Angeles to work in television. She appeared on “Love, American Style,” “Cannon,” “The Rookies” and other shows before taking the role of Vera on “Alice.”
Unlike many actors, Ms. Howland had never worked as a waitress. “But I just kept sitting around coffee shops and watching how it’s done, and now I can carry four dinners,” she told Knight Newspapers.
One of Vera’s most memorable moments on the show occurred a scant few seconds after the beginning of the first episode. A customer’s cheery “Hi, Vera,” caused her to throw a boxful of drinking straws into the air. The freak-out became part of the show’s opening credit sequence.
For nine years, Vera remained overwrought, but changes did occur. Toward the end of the series, she married a police officer, Elliot Novak, played by Charles Levin. In the final episode, she announced that she was pregnant.
Ms. Howland acted sporadically after “Alice” went off the air. She had small guest roles on “Eight Is Enough,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “The Tick.”
She and the actress Jennifer Warren were the executive producers of the documentary “You Don’t Have to Die,” about a 6-year-old boy’s successful battle against cancer. It won an Academy Award in 1989 for best short-subject documentary.
HOWLAND, Beth (Elizabeth Howland)
Born: 5/28/1941, Boston Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Died: 12/31/2015, Santa Monica, California, U.S.A.
Beth Howland’s western – actress:
Little House on the Prairie (TV) – 1976 (clerk)