Marcia Wallace, in her four-decade TV career, never emerged as the star of the show – in fact, in her most famous role, she never actually emerged from the recording studio. But the talented actress, who expertly exuded a mix of sarcasm and resigned exasperation, proved a key player in two of the strongest ensemble casts in sitcom history, making her mark in live and animated forms.
Wallace, who delivered zingers on "The Bob Newhart Show" as Chicago medical office receptionist Carol Kester and bickered with Bart as Springfield Elementary School teacher Edna Krabappel on "The Simpsons," died Friday at age 70. She leaves a multigenerational mix of fans, who, whether or not they knew her by sight, long enjoyed her distinctive comic voice.
Viewers actually got to see Wallace and her shock of red hair on Newhart’s classic 1970s show about a shrink, his wife and their oddball collection of friends. Her lovelorn, but spirited Carol offered a saucy counterpart to the dry wit of Newhart’s Dr. Bob Hartley, and her barbs punctured the pretensions of Peter Bonerz’ egotistical dentist, Dr. Jerry Robinson.
Bart constantly knocked the breath out of chain-smoking Ms. Krabappel, Wallace’s most iconic part, in which she effectively conveyed the beleaguered fourth-grade teacher’s not-so-quiet-desperation. Edna’s snort of a laugh betrayed a jaded educator on the verge of defeat, though she eventually learned how to live with Bart (even if making him write out punishments on the blackboard didn’t cure his behavior problems) and found a modicum of happiness in her mid-life marriage to holy roller Ned Flanders.
Wallace lent an occasionally poignancy to Edna, bringing the cartoon character beyond caricature and earning the actress an Emmy in 1992.
Wallace’s voice, sadly, has been silenced too soon, but will live on through syndication via hundreds of episodes of “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Simpsons,” spanning 41 years. She'll be missed from Chicago to Springfield, and far beyond.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.