You might not recognize her name, but if you watched television in the 1970s and ’80s, you surely knew her face. Beth Howland earned four Golden Globe nominations for her endearing portrayal of the naive and nervous, accident-prone waitress Vera Louise Gorman on the Sunday night sitcom Alice. Based on the 1974 Martin Scorsese film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the weekly sitcom featured Linda Lavin in the title role, along with Polly Holliday as gum-snapping waitress Flo and Vic Tayback as the irascible owner of Mel’s Diner.
Beth Howland was one of few Hollywood hopefuls who never worked as a waitress. “I just kept sitting around coffee shops and watching how it’s done, and now I can carry four dinners,” she told interviewers.
In addition to her breakout role on Alice, Howland made guest appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, Love American Style, and Little House on the Prairie. According to her obit in the New York Times, Beth Howland also appeared as a dancer with future Beverly Hillbillies star Donna Douglas and future Mary Tyler Moore Show costar Valerie Harper in the 1959 movie version of Li’l Abner.
Born Elizabeth Howland in Boston on May 28, 1941, the actress evinced talent at a very young age. Dance lessons at the Hazel Boone Studio proved fruitful when she moved to New York and began trying out for parts at age 16. Best known for her part as a klutzy food server, Beth Howland was a versatile actress who got her start on Broadway, where the teenage thespian was a featured dancer in the original stage production of Bye Bye Birdie.
Opening on April 14, 1960, at the Martin Beck Theater, the musical play starred Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Chita Rivera, Dick Gautier, and Kay Medford. Choreographed by Gower Champion, the teen-themed musical enjoyed a 607-show run, closing at the Schubert Theater on October 7, 1961. In 1963, Van Dyke and Lynde reprised their roles for the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie.
Bye Bye Birdie changed Beth Howland’s life offstage, too. It was during rehearsals for the rock-n-roll romp that she met and fell in love with Michael J. Pollard, the droll actor she married at age 19. The union lasted just six years and produced her only child, Holly Howland.
Roger Ebert interviewed Michael J. Pollard in October 1969. When asked about his marriage to Beth, Pollard said the following.
“Hey, man, my wife and I were up until 7 this morning, rapping about things. It’s nice to still be able to talk to your wife after four years. Maybe it comes from living in Los Angeles. Andy Warhol’s dream city. New York builds hostility. If we had lived in New York, we might not have lasted three years. Well, we’ve been married three years, but living together four years. I moved in the very same day I met her. No flowers, no Whitman Samplers, nothing.”
When interviewed in later years, Beth Howland said that Pollard’s sudden fame as getaway driver C. W. Moss in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde put an irreparable strain on their marriage. Michael J. Pollard never married again.
Howland enjoyed meatier roles in Carol Burnett’s Once Upon a Mattress and took a star turn as the neurotic, marriage-phobic Amy in the 1970 Stephen Sondheim vehicle Company.
Beth told the Los Angeles Times she found auditioning for the part in Company to be “thrilling.” “If they had asked me to do it in Hindi, standing on my head, I would have done my best.”
The Tony-Award-winning musical also starred Elaine Stritch and Charles Kimbrough. Kimbrough and Beth Howland were married in 2002. The actor with whom Howland spent the rest of her life may be best known for his role as the ultra conservative Jim Dial on the TV series Murphy Brown. It was Kimbrough who made the announcement of Beth’s December demise three days before what would have been the actress’ 75th birthday.
In the late 1980s, Howland formed Tiger Rose Productions with fellow actress Jennifer Warren. Together they produced the HBO documentary You Don’t Have to Die. The doc won the Oscar in 1988 for Best Short Subject.
Before she found fame on Alice, Howland was featured in ad campaigns for Salem cigarettes.
Beth Howland succumbed to lung cancer on December 31, 2015, but before her death, she requested that her passing not be immediately revealed to the media. She was 74 years old.
[Photo by Doug Pizac/AP Images]