article

09.11.10

Mad Men’s New Scene-Stealer

Has Don Draper met his match in his cranky, incompetent new secretary? Gina Piccalo talks to actress Randee Heller about becoming a Web phenomenon at age 63.

Mad Men, AMC’s melancholy period drama, has always been a stylish and sobering experience occasionally disrupted by illicit sex. But this season, a mouthy old broad in cat-eye glasses and an itchy wig named Ida Blankenship started goosing fans with a bracing shot of comic relief.

Viewers were clearly hungry for a refreshing pick-me-up. Miss Blankenship has inspired her own Facebook fan page, Twitter account, and loads of blog love. And it’s no wonder, really. With every other character always half-in-the-bag, deep in their mid-century malaise, Miss Blankenship is the reality check they all desperately need.

Randee Heller, the veteran actress who plays her, has been overwhelmed by how quickly her character inspired a fanbase, largely by online word-of-mouth. “I am 63,” she told The Daily Beast. “We didn’t have the new media years ago. Twitter, Facebook are so different from where I began. It’s like a fire that takes off. … I’m reading everybody’s Twitter. Getting such a kick out of it.”

The character, who was mentioned by name early on in the show and has appeared in only a handful of episodes, is a swift kick-in-the-pants to moody ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Don has spent much of this season sleeping off a bender, but still gets what he wants just by clenching that super-hero jaw just so. After the latest in a series of secretarial affairs ended with one fragile Girl Friday lobbing a glass ashtray at him and storming out in tears, the bullet-chested office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) dragged Blankenship out of retirement—a clearly punitive act on her part.

Right away, the bewigged Blankenship brought Draper down a peg, showing visitors into his office without warning, calling him out for napping in his office, eschewing work for the crossword puzzles she does at her desk, and showing absolutely no discretion, which in the Mad Men world is like cutting off the Scotch supply. “Your daughter’s psychiatrist cawled!” she crows to him, alerting everyone in the vicinity of Draper’s troubled little girl, Sally.

Just last week, it was revealed that Miss Blankenship has her own salacious secrets. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the resident aging cad who is dictating his memoirs, revealed that he’d once bedded a young Ida, whom he called “the Queen of Perversions." The Blankenship faithful should especially look forward to the Sept. 19 episode.

“It’s really pushing the edge,” says Heller. “You think she’s an old lady. All of a sudden you hear she’s the slut of the week.”

Heller, who has logged 40 years in Hollywood, auditioned for the role without ever having seen an episode of Mad Men. She had left acting altogether eight years ago, aged out of the business. Young casting directors didn’t remember Heller as the first woman to portray a lesbian on series TV (opposite Billy Crystal) in the groundbreaking show Soap.

By the late 1990s, the work started drying up. So Heller took a job as an ESL teacher in Los Angeles and had no intention of returning to Hollywood.

Back then, Heller was the young lovely on the set, making a daring career move and hoping for the best. The role got her lots of fan mail from lesbians, she says, and years worth of sitcom work and a role as Ralph Macchio’s no-nonsense single mom in The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid Part III.

But by the late 1990s, the work started drying up. So Heller took a job as an ESL teacher in Los Angeles and had no intention of returning to Hollywood. “It was a relief,” she says. “A steady job. A captive audience. They don’t pay for it. They don’t leave. It was very, very gratifying.”

Then in February, she decided to give acting another chance. A few weeks later, she landed a role on creator Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, one of TV’s most-lauded dramas.

“At the reading, Matthew came over and said, ‘You look too good! We’re going to age you up. We’re going to make you look awful,’” says Heller. “Then I went home and I watched a bunch of episodes and I started realizing the magnitude of this job.”

Heller spends nearly two hours in a makeup chair before each episode, much of it having eyelash glue painstakingly applied to her face to give her skin the crevices of age. (By modern standards, Blankenship looks to be in her mid-70, but Heller says she is supposed to be about 68 years old. Women didn’t age so well in the 1960s.)

As for the accent, it’s the product of being born in Brooklyn and growing up on Long Island, surrounded by grandparents speaking Yiddish. “It’s in my ear,” she says of Blankenship’s drawl. “I am channeling someone. But I don’t know who she is. I felt it come into my body the first week. I felt it physically, organically.”

Initially, Heller had to adjust to being the old lady on a set crowded with swanning beauties in pencil skirts. “It was very hard,” she said. “I’d say to myself the first week, ‘I used to look like you.’ It was kind of interesting. I used to play very attractive, with the makeup, the hair. It sort of put me in a space, in retrospect, saying ‘Wow! That time goes by very fast.’”

The sacrifice is proving worthwhile, though. Heller’s getting auditions again and just finished a guest-starring role on the ABC hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy. “I played another lesbian,” she said chuckling. “I made a full circle.”

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.