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OBITUARIES : Dody Goodman, 1914 - 2008

Comedian, actress gained fame on the Jack Paar show

June 24, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Dody Goodman, a comedian and character actress who gained fame as the resident zany on Jack Paar's late-night show and as the ditsy matriarch on the soap opera send-up "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," has died. She was believed to be 93.

Goodman died Sunday at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, said Ann-Marie De Feis, a spokeswoman for the Actors Fund Homes in Englewood, where Goodman had been living. A cause of death was not announced.

Her early success as a dancer on Broadway gave way to television in the 1950s after friends such as comic actress Imogene Coca persuaded Goodman that she was naturally funny.

Cultivating a zany persona in the vein of comedian Gracie Allen was made easier by Goodman's distinctive, crackly Southern voice. It has been described as sounding "like a Tweetie Pie cartoon bird strangling on peanut butter" or "gravel mixed into a bowl of honey." She had a loopy grin to match.

Even Paar wasn't sure what to make of Goodman.

"She seemed more like a bird-brained housewife than a ballerina" and "spoke in a distracted manner that defied description," he said in an excerpt from his 1983 book, "P.S. Jack Paar," on Goodman's website. "The more she talked the more obvious it became that no one could have made up Dody Goodman."

An early guest on the show when it debuted in 1957, Goodman "had a great deal to do with the original success of the program," Paar wrote. She was "terribly witty, in a droll way, with a natural sense of the ridiculous."

Goodman told the Associated Press in 1994 that she would "do a dumb thing for fun. That's how I got the reputation for being dopey and dumb."

Her goofy interactions on the Paar show brought her an Emmy nomination in 1958, but she was off the NBC show the same year after a reported fallout with the host. She was "a tireless talker," Paar wrote, and he had begun "to feel like the announcer on 'The Dody Goodman Show.' "

Goodman turned to "The Toast of the Town" on CBS with Ed Sullivan and took her quirky off-kilter act to other TV talk shows. She wouldn't make it big on television again until "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" in 1976.

A cult hit, the late-night show aired five nights a week and was known for its wild but deadpan humor. During the opening credits, Goodman's sing-song voice could be heard calling out "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

The role of Martha Shumway, who was the mother of the title character in the parody, could have been pulled from Goodman's comic arsenal. The flaky Shumway talked to plants and had an affair with a man who fell through her kitchen roof in a hot-air balloon.

When Louise Lasser, who starred as Mary Hartman, left the show in 1977, it continued for another six months as "Forever Fernwood."

Goodman's character had adored her husband until he had plastic surgery after falling into a vat of Rustoleum. She struggled to be affectionate when he came out looking like the former teen idol Tab Hunter, who now played him.

In a stage and screen career that spanned more than 65 years, Goodman portrayed the spaced-out high school secretary in the 1978 film "Grease" and appeared on Broadway in a 1990s revival of the musical.

In addition to guest roles on television shows, she appeared in the 1984 film "Splash," voiced the part of the baby sitter on "Alvin and the Chipmunks" animated specials and was a regular on two daytime soaps, "Seach for Tomorrow" in the 1960s and "One Life to Live" in the 1980s.

The stage remained a favorite haven, and in the late 1980s, Goodman joined the national touring company of the musical "Nunsense" as Sister Mary Amnesia, a nun who doesn't know who she is. Later, she played Mother Superior in the show off-Broadway and appeared in the play as recently as 1999.

"She was the only performer I knew who could walk on stage as Mother Superior and say, 'Are you ready to start?' and have the audience in stitches. She didn't even need a funny line. She was the embodiment of comedy," Danny Goggin, the creator of "Nunsense," told Playbill this week.

She was born Dolores Goodman on Oct. 28 in Columbus, Ohio, to Dexter Goodman, who owned a cigar factory, and Leona Goodman. Her website gives 1914 as her birth year, but she was known to obfuscate her age.

Upon graduating from high school, Goodman moved to New York to become a ballerina but was soon dancing in the chorus lines of Broadway musicals. After directing her in the musical "Wonderful Town," which debuted in 1953, George Abbott helped persuade her to concentrate on comedy.

While appearing in revues with such comic performers as Bea Arthur, Chita Rivera and Arte Johnson, Goodman's way of groping for words would elicit outrageous repartee and convulse audiences, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1990.

With Paar, she engaged in conversational detours that he later recalled as "wackily endearing."

Goodman, who once said she had an early marriage to a dancer, was unmarried and had no immediate survivors.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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