Georgia Engel, whose distinctive voice and pinpoint comic timing made her a memorable part of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” on which she played Georgette Franklin, girlfriend and eventually wife of the buffoonish TV newsman Ted Baxter, died Friday in Princeton, New Jersey. She was 70.
John Quilty, her friend and executor, said the cause was undetermined because Engel, who was a Christian Scientist, did not consult doctors.
Engel was twice nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on “Mary Tyler Moore,” which she joined in 1972, during the show’s third season.
“It was only going to be one episode,” she told The Toronto Star in 2007, “and I was just supposed to have a few lines in a party scene, but they kept giving me more and more to do.”
She had a high-pitched, innocent voice that, as one writer put it, “sounds like an angel has just sniffed some helium,” and she used it expertly to contrast with the blustery Baxter (played by Ted Knight) and the usually levelheaded Mary Richards, Moore’s character.
She brought the voice — her real voice — and the comedic skills to other sitcoms after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended in 1977, most notably “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where she had a recurring role from 2003 to 2005. She was nominated for an Emmy for each season.
“She could get a laugh on literally every line you gave her,” Philip Rosenthal, the creator of “Raymond,” said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Engel’s castmates on “Mary Tyler Moore” included Betty White, with whom she would go on to work on “The Betty White Show” in the 1970s, and “Hot in Cleveland” this decade.
“Georgia was one of a kind and the absolute best,” White said today through a spokeswoman.
Although she was best known from television, Engel began her career onstage, reaching Broadway in 1969 as a replacement player near the end of the run of “Hello, Dolly!” She enjoyed a late-career resurgence in the theater, including a leading role last year in “Half Time,” a musical staged at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey about 60-and-older dancers who perform at halftime of professional basketball games.
Ben Brantley, reviewing that show in The New York Times, noted the echoes of Engel’s “Mary Tyler Moore” breakthrough in her performance.
“Here she is, some 40 years later and 69 years old, deploying that same perplexed stare and breathy little-girl voice,” he wrote. “And she totally lights up the stage, while bringing bright new inflections to song and dance moves inspired by Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Run-DMC. I hadn’t been conscious that I was missing Ms. Engel, but evidently I was.”
Georgia Bright Engel was born July 28, 1948, in Washington to Benjamin Engel, an officer in the Coast Guard, and Ruth (Hendron) Engel. Her sister Robin Engel said Engel had played Ado Annie — the girl who “can’t say no” — in a school production of “Oklahoma!”
“There was a talent scout from the Washington School of Ballet,” Robin Engel said in a telephone interview, “and they offered her a scholarship.”
After graduating from the ballet school in 1967, she earned a theater degree at the University of Hawaii. She then landed a part in a Milos Forman movie, “Taking Off,” whose screenwriters included John Guare. Once “Dolly” ended its run in 1970, that connection proved auspicious.
“I was walking down the street one day after ‘Dolly’ closed to cash my unemployment check for $75,” Engel told The Toronto Star years later, “when I ran into John and he told me I had to be in his play ‘The House of Blue Leaves.’ I was so thrilled, until I got my first paycheck. I was making $74, one dollar less than unemployment.”
The payoff came when Moore and her husband, producer Grant Tinker, saw Engel in that play in Los Angeles. The role of Georgette soon followed.
Engel also had recurring roles on “Jennifer Slept Here” in the 1980s and “Coach” in the 1990s, among other shows.
In the 1990s she toured with versions of the “Nunsense” musical theater franchise, and in 2003 she joined an all-star 20th-anniversary “Nunsense” touring production that also featured Kaye Ballard, Mimi Hines, Darlene Love and Lee Meriwether.
Engel was in the original Broadway cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2006, playing a dotty woman named Mrs. Tottendale. The role required her to aim repeated spit takes at her character’s butler. She ended up doing a lot of spitting: After originating the role on Broadway, she joined the tour and stayed with it for more than a year.
“At first, I was getting more on me than on the other person,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008 of her spit-taking. “It was just dribbling right down me. You have to learn how to direct it. It works better as a mist, but sometimes it comes out as Niagara Falls.”
The book for that show was by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Martin also co-wrote the book for “Half Time,” which was based on “Gotta Dance,” a documentary about a real-life group of 60-and-older dancers. Dori Berinstein, who made that documentary and was a producer of the musical, noted that although Engel had a dance background, she had not done the kind of hip-hop moves the show required.
“She dove into training,” Berinstein said in a telephone interview. “She was determined to kill it.”
Engel’s other recent stage credits included the lead role in an Annie Baker play, “John,” at the Signature Center in New York in 2015.
In addition to her sister Robin, Engel is survived by another sister, Penny Lusk.
“I don’t consider myself any great shakes as an actor at all,” Engel told The Times in 2015, but Rosenthal would beg to differ. That her best-known roles had a certain airheadedness to them masked how good she was at her craft and how hard she worked to get things just right, he said.
He particularly recalled an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” called “Pat’s Secret” in which her character (Pat MacDougall) was revealed, against all expectations, to be a smoker. Engel was no smoker, but she sold the bit.
“The way she handled her lighter was like a Mafia boss,” he said.
“It’s not everybody who can get up there and get a laugh,” he added. “You pray for someone like her to come along.”