When I read that Conchata Ferrell had died, I was suddenly, deeply and surprisingly sad.
She was best known for her portrayal of Berta, the brash unflappable housekeeper in “Two and a Half Men,” and certainly she was my favorite part of that show.
Berta, however, is not what I thought of when I learned of Ferrell’s death. Nor was any other particular role — not Susan Bloom, all cigarettes and crazy statement jewelry in “L.A. Law,” not “Mystic Pizza’s” Leona, with her kerchiefs and secret spices. Not even April from the tragically short-lived “Hot l Baltimore,” no clips of which can be found (at least by me) in the archival universe of the internet.
It was none of those roles, and all of them, and more. It was the relief I felt when I saw that unmistakable silhouette move into view on any screen and waited for what would happen next because I knew it would be good. That electric zip of anticipation when a situation called for her to speak because I knew she would nail whatever bit of exposition, character development or comic relief she had been given firmly to the floor, so that everyone around her could continue their dance with ease.
Ferrell was a character actor, the old-fashioned kind, who with her large and small roles in countless television series from “Maude” to “Grace and Frankie” and the occasional film, burrowed deep into my cultural psyche. I loved Ferrell first and foremost because she looked and sounded like my people red-haired and rotund, but worldly wise and dry rather than jolly. Her brand of comfort came in the form of a narrow appraising look and a flat-voiced but piercing retort that, as the best one-liners do, played more like disinterested observation.
“That’s a lot of tea, Grandma Grace,” she said to Jane Fonda’s character as she poured vodka into a teacup during an attempt to compete with Ferrell’s Grandma Jean in “Grace and Frankie.”
In my memory, no one leaned on a counter with the same kind of expressiveness as Ferrell did, few could so fully pull off the embodiment of “hands on hips” (even when the hands were nowhere near the hips) and no one could infuse a well-dropped “What?” with as much multi-layered meaning.
She was the queen of not taking any crap “Someone ought to ram fried goat cheese up his ass,” Leona says when a snooty food critic appears to disdain her famous Mystic pizza but you knew her characters were filled with heart, which often manifested in the kind of rueful-admiration-in-defeat moment that is typically reserved for male characters. “Nice kick,” her Jan said to Winona Ryder’s Babe after the absolutely insane fight scene in “Mr. Deeds.”
Ferrell was from West Virginia. She played many types of parts but always with a “whadda you lookin’ at?” spine that made her the kind of actor you wanted to see in pretty much everything; like good plain salt, she was rarely showy and always indispensable.