'Mad Men': Randee Heller talks about the death of Miss Blankenship
Miss Ida Blankenship shed her mortal coil on Sunday night's episode of "Mad Men." But there's no chance fans of the show will forget her. She joins a growing list of beloved characters who have exited the show much too soon -- Paul Kinsey, Sal Romano, Chauncey the Dog -- though none did so with as much flair as the "Queen of Perversions" herself.
With her casual racism, her tinted lenses and her "hellcat" past, Miss Blankenship was a breath of musty, mothball-scented air amid the cigarette haze of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. In lieu of a spinoff, here's hoping we get to see the remarkable Randee Heller at next year's Emmys. Tuesday, I spoke with Heller -- a.k.a. the mom from "The Karate Kid" -- about the joys of playing Miss Blankenship, the cult following she's inspired and, of course, Ralph Macchio.
So, how are you feeling after Sunday's episode?
I’m dead. [Laughs]
There’s been quite an outpouring of grief since Miss Blankenship's untimely demise.
Yeah, I love it. It’s fun to be dead and watch people mourn your passing. We rarely get that opportunity.
Miss Blankenship’s time on “Mad Men” was short, but she’s made quite an impression. Why do you think that is?
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because she provided an unexpected dose of comedy on a season that’s otherwise been very somber.
I think you hit it right on the head. It was comic relief. Because “Mad Men” did get very dark, it was the contrast. It’s good just to laugh sometimes, and if it comes out of some truth, it’s even stronger. I think that’s why they loved her so much.
So when you got the part, was it described to you in those terms — that she was going to provide some comic relief?
No. The only description I got was an elderly secretary, somebody with a very strong New York accent. Then when I got it, Matt Weiner said to me, “Now we’re going to make you look really bad.” You know, look old, but in Hollywood, that’s bad. They aged me up, put the glasses on, added the liver spots. She wasn’t really all that attractive, but she had that great red lipstick. She sort of evolved. I don’t think they really knew what they were getting. I think we just sort of came together on this one and found her.
Were you a fan of the show before you got the call?
I never saw it. So when I got the part, I was On Demand, thank God for that. I watched a lot the shows with my boyfriend. It’s wonderful. It’s deserving of everything it’s gotten. I hate when people use this term, but Matt Weiner is a genius.
Were you sad to find out that your character was going to die?
I was not that surprised, because quite frankly I had a feeling that she was going to die in the office. I didn’t feel like she was going to go on and on. She was not sexually appealing. Get her out!
Did you relish that aspect of the character — that she’s this wrinkly old woman in an office full of gorgeous, perfectly coiffed women?
I think it was very freeing, that I didn’t have to be in that space anymore. In real life, I didn’t have that pressure to have a good night’s sleep. I’d be up all night and have bags and it would be better. To be in the makeup trailer and see all this youth and beauty. It was kinda nice looking from the outside at something that has passed in my life. I was perfectly fine with that. And having fun with them making me up and make me look older and see potentially what my future was going to be. It’s not a pretty picture, you know? My mother is 91, and she looked a lot better than I did.
Can you tell us more about the tryst between Roger and Ida?
I don’t know if you’re going to find out; I’m not privy to that. I heard about it about Week 2 or 3, that she was the “Queen of Perversions.” She got around in her time in that office. It’s funny, I wasn’t shocked, it just tickled me. What a great dynamic. Now, you’d never think that. People get over that once they lose their hormones. I thought it was just a fun aspect of her. She’s not self-editing at all, which I love. She can say whatever she wants and get away with it. I’m very sensitive so it was fun to take on a character who doesn’t care at all, like when she says that Sally looks chubby in the pictures. You’ve thought those things, but you never say them, especially not to a parent.
Luckily, Don doesn’t seem to mind.
No, he doesn’t. One good swig of some whiskey, and he’s fine.
Did you know any Miss Blankenships growing up on Long Island?
Not specifically, not one person. She’s a compilation of the accents and attitudes. Truly, I think some spirit came and inhabited me. I know that sounds silly, but I felt that she came into my body at some point. So maybe she is an astronaut floating around.
Was there a moment in particular when you felt that she was around?
The very first show. I was hanging up Don's coat and I felt like — whoa! — like an adjustment and my whole body just went “badump!” It was kind of eerie because I’ve never felt that before. Something inhabited me, some spirit just came into me and just changed my whole physicality.
It was like you were possessed?
Yes, that's a good word for it.
Do you think Ida had any other affairs in her heyday?
I think that she worked very hard as a secretary. I think she probably had some hot affairs. I didn’t see her as being married; she was married to her job. Maybe that’s all she had, that was her whole life, the company. All her fun was from there, as well as her paycheck.
The way I interpreted her death was a warning sign, especially to the women in the office. Did you think of it that way?
She wasn’t exactly the warmest character. She didn’t connect. The reactions were not strong to her death, they were more self-involved. They were looking at themselves, like perhaps that’s going to be their demise. “I have no life outside of this, and that’s the way I’m gonna go too.” And seeing them go down the elevator at the end, each woman having their own things to deal with. The way they dealt with it, they were very uncomfortable, except for Joan, who takes cares of it like she always does. Those conversations after her death, they were getting very reflective about their life. I don’t want to die like this, like Ida left the planet.
Was it tough to sit there and play dead, with your mouth hanging open, in the scene with Peggy?
It wasn't that awkward. What really bothered me was landing on the desk. The glasses were conking into my head! That was the hard part. It was worth it, though; it looked very real. They actually had a stunt coordinator on there; he was teaching me how to land on the top of my head, which I didn’t always do. They padded my arms because they were getting bruised. You sort of just have to go, “OK, I’m gonna hit the desk now” and just have faith that your body’s going to withstand it. And here I am, to talk about it. Seriously, I do a lot of yoga, so I’m in control of my body. I have a lot of confidence, even though I’m older.
This isn't the first memorable TV role you've played. You started out as a suicidal lesbian on “Soap.”
I would say that was the first big splash. I think it was the first lesbian on television. I’m not positive, but I dare say it was. It was pretty controversial at the time. The Jerry Falwell crowd, there was a lot of backlash on that. The show sort of toned the whole thing down. It was fun playing an off character.
Do you think Miss Blankenship is your most memorable character to date?
From what I’ve read, I guess it’s “The Karate Kid” mother. That’s an iconic movie. Lucille LaRusso was the first, and I hope Miss Blankenship isn’t the last. I see that’s she’s made such a splash.
You were surprised by the response to her?
I never expected that. Not in my wildest dreams. When I was on set, everybody really enjoyed her, but they said, “Expect a lot of --” what’s the word? -- viral. She went viral. That’s very telling to me, about this generation. Why is she such a Web heroine? Maybe in these tough times, we need to laugh a little more.
She did inspire quite a few tributes online. Were there any favorites?
Yesterday, I saw something I loved from the Daily Beast. They put together a eulogy for Miss Blankenship. It’s funny to me that all this popularity is on the Web. You can’t get a hard copy!
Did you have a favorite Blankenship moment?
One line I loved was talking about Don's son and the birthday present, and I say “him or her.” But there were so many. The one about masochists was good too. I got all the good ones in the last episode!
I actually went back and checked the episode and discovered that, as far as I can tell, the last person Miss Blankenship spoke to was Betty Draper.
[In ominous voice] The way of Betty. [Laughs] Are you looking for anything symbolic there? I didn’t think about that, to be honest with you.
I was hoping her last line would be when she asked Don, “Are you going to the toilet?”
That would have been perfect, going out on that. She always has to know everybody’s bathroom habits.
So who is cuter, Jon Hamm or Ralph Macchio?
Oh stop! That’s my answer. Well, let’s see, when I was 36, I played Ralph’s mother. You know what, bottom line, they’re both really good men. They’re actors and they’re talented and they’re really good men.
Has Miss Blankenship gotten you some attention professionally?
There’s been a little heat; hopefully it will turn into something. People are talking and phoning and saying, “Who is this lady?” I’m going to be on “Grey’s Anatomy" playing another lesbian.
I fantasize about a "Mad Men" spinoff show.
Everybody says that! Even when I was doing it, people said, “Oh, Blankenship spinoff!” It would have to be a prequel. Or maybe she’s in outer space in an astronaut costume. Hopefully, they’ll resurrect her in some way. I don’t think she has left the planet yet.
Anything else you want to say about Miss Ida Blankenship?
I’m just sitting outside, and there’s a beautiful butterfly — it’s Miss Blankenship! No, there’s a gorgeous butterfly lying around on the bougainvillea, and I’m just saying, “Life is good, life is really good!”
-- Meredith Blake
Photos: Randee Heller as Miss Ida Blankenship. Credit: Mike Yarish/AMC