Sunday, February 13, 2011

Good Night, Irene

I had mixed emotions this morning when I heard that actress Betty Garrett died of an aortic aneurysm yesterday.

She was 91, after all, but she was active. She was still making occasional appearances on TV — although not as frequently as she once did — and I understand that she was teaching a musical comedy class at the time of her death.

Nevertheless, when someone is in his/her 90s, death cannot be entirely unexpected, no matter how active that person may be.

Garrett had a long career in movies, Broadway, radio and TV during which she crossed paths with many of the stars of her day.

People who are older than I must think of her films or her guest spots on TV series when they think of Betty Garrett, and some who are younger may think of the days when Garrett played the landlady on Laverne & Shirley — or perhaps when she did something else.

But I think of the early 1970s, when Garrett was cast as Irene Lorenzo, the Bunkers' new neighbor on All in the Family. Irene's husband (played by the late Vincent Gardenia) was written out of the series after one season (I don't recall if his absence was ever explained), but Irene was a fixture on the show for two or three years.

On some TV series, a neighbor doesn't figure too prominently in story lines, but that wasn't the case with Irene. She didn't live under the same roof with the Bunkers, but she was always there — so much so that Archie connived to get her a job where he worked just so she wouldn't be at his house so much.

I never really understood the purpose of Irene's character. She was a liberal — but so was just about everyone in Archie's world. She was a feminist — but so was Archie's daughter and (one suspected) his wife as well.

Irene was Catholic, and that may have been part of the purpose — to serve as ground zero for religious conflict. To that point in the series, religion rarely surfaced as an issue (typically, an incidental one) on All in the Family. And, in fact, it did serve as the basis for at least one episode — when Archie was afraid that Irene and her sister (a nun) were trying to convert Edith to Catholicism.

Other than that, though, I can't really remember episodes in which Irene's faith was a source of conflict.

Maybe I'm overplaying the significance of the character. Maybe Irene was there to be Edith's friend, to give her character a chance to blossom. If so, mission accomplished. Edith was a much richer character because of her interaction with Irene.

And even if that wasn't the writers' intention, it was clearly an outcome of Irene's presence. Through her conversations with Irene, Edith gave the audiences a deeper understanding of who she was and what she thought. She was hardly the "dingbat" that Archie called her.

If the disappearance of Irene's husband had been adequately explained, it might have permitted her to be a role model of some kind — for widowed spouses or, perhaps, for Catholic women facing the stigma of divorce.

There were other people who had recurring roles on All in the Family and could have served as enablers or role models who helped break down stereotypes. One who died just a week ago, Peggy Rea, could have been a role model for the overweight, but she only made three appearances on the show.

Well, whatever Garrett's character's purpose may have been, I liked her. I enjoyed her verbal jousts with Archie. Ironically, TVLand is scheduled to show Garrett's first two episodes as Irene Lorenzo this Thursday at 5 p.m. (Central). Watch and see how her relationship with the Bunkers began.