Beth Howland, 1960s. (Photo by Film Favorites/Getty Images)
  • Television

Beth Howland, Four-Time Golden Globe Nominee: An Appreciation

Beth Howland, four-time Golden Globe nominee for her role in the sitcom Alice has died, age 74. Boston-born Howland passed away December 31, 2015 in Santa Monica, CA. Boston-born Howland passed away December 31, 2015 in Santa Monica, CA, but the family released the news only now. "It was her wish”, said her husband, actor Charles Kimbrough. "She had not wanted a funeral or a memorial service either. It was the Boston side of her personality coming out. She didn't want to make a fuss".

The role that brought Howland fame was the opposite: that of the fussy, ditsy, nervous, accident-prone waitress Vera Louise Gorman on the long running (1976-1985) television sitcom Alice in which, the New York Times wrote, she " …made high anxiety an art form". During the run of the show it would earn her four Golden Globe nominations. 

TV's Alice was a repeat and extension of the 1974 movie Alice Doesn' t Live Here Anymore, director Martin Scorsese's fourth feature, with Ellen Burstyn in the title role (Burstyn won the Oscar for her work, and was nominated for a Golden Globe).

Alice is a recently widowed aspiring singer who lands with her teen-aged son in Phoenix AZ. where she goes to work at a greasy spoon diner to make ends meet, while dreaming of a career big break. The diner's owner is the gruff, male chauvinist, loud Mel Sharples, lording it over his waitresses who serve a blue collar clientele.

Some of the movie cast continued to the television version, but Valerie Curtin, who played the high strung waitress Vera did not. Alan Shayne, the president of Warner Bros. Television, remembered seeing Howland on Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, where, as a nervous bride she sang  Getting Married Today, a song delivered in a lightning-fast patter. (“It was a perfect song for me,” Howland said in an interview years later.  “I’m not a singer, and it has maybe four notes.”)

Shayne cast Howland, he later wrote, because “Vera was written as a taut wire, ready to go to pieces at any minute, (and Howland on stage was) going to pieces in front of the audience’s eyes.”

Winning the part, Howland played Vera for the whole nine-season run of the show. Critics called her performance  "wide-eyed, jumpy ". She described her character as  “insecure and vulnerable. Probably works the hardest of anybody in the diner. Very gullible, very innocent.”  A typical, memorable acting moment took place in the first minute of the very first episode. Reacting to a customer's cheery "Hi, Vera" Howland spontaneously threw a box-full of drinking straws into the air. It was promptly incorporated into the show's opening credits sequence, and seen every week for nine seasons.

Alice  received a total of 16 Golden Globe nominations and eight wins, including Best Series-Comedy, Best Actress-Comedy for the lead, Linda Lavin (twice), and Best Supporting Globes to Howland's castmates:  Diane Ladd (who was earlier nominated for playing that role in the movie) and twice each to Vic Tayback and Polly Holliday.