Remembering Arlene Golonka
Editor’s Note: This tribute is largely adapted from an interview/profile of Arlene Golonka that was first published in the July 26, 1998, issue (Volume 15, Issue 1) of The Bullet, the printed predecessor of The eBullet. Some updates, especially pertaining to the intervening 23 years since that publication, have been added.
Arlene died in her sleep on May 31, 2021, in West Hollywood, Calif., after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 85.
By Jim Clark
It’s a safe bet that effervescent Arlene Golonka was already giggling and smiling when she was born in Chicago, Ill., on January 23,1936, an otherwise routine Monday, nestled between the city’s eras dominated by Al Capone and Richard J. Daley.
Parents Elinor (Wroblewski) and Frank Golonka named their new daughter Arline (after popular 1930s actress Arline Judge) Leanore Golonka. Perhaps too close to the spelling of “airline” or maybe just trying to dodge any association with the by-then scandalous private life of namesake Arline Judge, the young Golonka’s name evolved to Arlene when a career as a performer beckoned.
Life would not always be smiles for Arlene. Her father died when she was less than two years old. Her mother then married Edward Rejba, a steel mill worker. The couple had two children of their own, Zorine and Jimmy. (Zorine’s husband was a restaurateur with the acclaimed Arnie’s and Morton’s of Chicago establishments and her stepson, Peter, later spearheaded the Hard Rock Café chain.)
Arlene and her family of Polish heritage lived in a tough Chicago neighborhood. Arlene attended Wicker Park School, the same grammar school attended by night club owner Jack Ruby, famous for killing Lee Harvey Oswald.
The rugged neighborhood sometimes meant a lot of unhappy times during Arlene’s childhood, but it also proved a fertile place for dreams to grow. “I started to see movies at a really early age,” Arlene recalled. “The movies babysat us. My mother always thought I would be a dancer. From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a performer.
“When I was 12 years old,” Arlene added, “there was a social worker who asked me, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I said, ‘What I’d really like to do is be an actress!’ She grabbed me by the shoulders and said to be me very firmly, ‘You can be whatever you want to be!'”
That same lady arranged for Arlene to receive free after-school theater instruction from Dr. Martini, a professor at the Goodman Theatre in downtown Chicago. Arlene took to her drama classes with gusto, and when she was a senior in high school, she earned the lead role in the graduation play.
Arlene’s talent for acting garnered her a scholarship to Chicago’s fabled Goodman School of Drama (associated at the time with the equally legendary Goodman Theatre and now known as The Theatre School of DePaul University), where she studied for three years. “That was an incredible moment for me,” Arlene said. “Almost nobody from our high school went on to college. My year, one other girl and I were the only ones to continue on. My whole life changed with the Goodman Theatre.”
When Arlene completed her three years of training at Goodman (during which time she performed some with the Second City troupe–taking Barbara Harris’s place), Dr. Gnesin, the school’s president, told Arlene, “I think you can go to New York and immediately be very successful.”
“While at Goodman,” Arlene recalled, “I had worked at the Gaslight Club in Chicago as a waitress and singer.” (She also got a “callback” to be singer at the Playboy Club, which had just made its big launch in Chicago.) Around that same time, Arlene remembered, “I got my first equity role in a production of Burlesque, which was produced by Agnes Moorehead’s husband [Robert Gist, along with future TAGS casting director Ruth Burch] and starred Bert Lahr (most famous as the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz).”
Lahr at first said Arlene was too young for the part for the Hinsdale Summer Theatre production, but then he heard her sing “Get Out and Get Under,” and, belatedly finding his courage, he relented, saying, “Ahh, keep the kid.” He followed Arlene’s career on Broadway and in films and TV with great interest until his death in 1967, and Mrs. Lahr did the same in the years afterward.
Arlene saved her money and eventually made her way to New York City with a thousand dollars in her pocket. “I immediately got lucky,” she said. “They were opening a Gaslight Club in New York!” On top of that, Arlene did a lot of work in television commercials. After a couple of years in New York, Arlene also landed her first significant acting job on a TV show with Judy Lewis (Loretta Young’s daughter) in the short-lived daytime soap opera “Kitty Foyle” in 1958. The series was directed by Hal Cooper, who two decades later would direct 38 episodes of “Mayberry R.F.D.”
In late 1958, with the help of writer and friend Susan Slade, Arlene won the role of Nellie Milwaukee in a David Merrick production of Night Circus at the John Golden Theatre. The play’s stars included Ben Gazzara and Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster). She received a grand send-off from her co-workers at the Gaslight. “I took over the role in Philadelphia and then it opened on Broadway. We closed after one week, and then I was back at the Gaslight.”
Arlene had a lot of supportive friends in New York–many were fellow “struggling actors.” “There would be five or six of us girls all sharing an apartment,” Arlene remembered about her early days in New York. One of her roommates was actress Valerie Harper, who remained a close friend through all the years.
“Val was in the chorus for Take Me Along (the Broadway musical version of O’Neill’s The Wilderness), which starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon and Bobby Morse; I played a prostitute),” Arlene recalled. “Val and I got to be good friends.” The musical had a successful run at the Shubert Theatre from October 1959 to December 1960.
Arlene stayed busy during the day doing whatever commercial work she could (she was also in an episode of the acclaimed “The Naked City” during this time). She would then scurry to the theater for her “regular” job on whatever Broadway production she was appearing in at the time. “It was funny to see all of these Broadway actors working as extras on movies during the day and then rushing off to the theaters and starring on Broadway at night,” Arlene recalled.
One of the productions Arlene ran off to was Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon’s first play. Arlene originated the role of Peggy Evans in the original Broadway production that ran for 677 performances from February 1961 to October 1962.
Around that time, Arlene met talented piano player Michael Longo, who would become her first husband. “Our apartment had no furniture, a red rug, a grand piano, a baby grand piano and a bed. That’s it,” Arlene laughed.
Arlene’s theater work helped support the couple as Arlene urged Mike to stick with what he wanted to do–jazz–and not play Dixieland just because it meant ready money. Mike went on to become Dizzy Gillespie’s first white piano player and was a protégé of celebrated jazz piano player Oscar Peterson.
Arlene continued to study her craft and hooked up with Lee Strasberg’s renowned Actors Studio, where classmates included fellow unknowns Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Marilyn Monroe. Arlene became a life member of The Actors Studio.
She also began to get larger roles in New York television. One of her first major TV jobs was a “U.S. Steel Hour” production of The Apple of His Eye on CBS in 1959.
During this time, she continued to appear regularly in plays and musicals. One was The Wayward Stork. Another was Ready When You Are, C.B.!, which was written by old friend Susan Slade, directed by Joshua Logan, and starred Estelle Parsons and Julie Harris. It featured a part that Slade wrote especially for Arlene.
That was followed shortly afterward by the 1963 Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Cort Theatre. It starred Kirk Douglas and Gene Wilder. Arlene originated the role of Candy. “Gene gave me some advice,” Arlene laughed, as she recalled the actor’s legendary zaniness. “He said, ‘When in doubt, do less,’ which was pretty ironic coming from him!”
Arlene played multiple characters on a 1965 comedy album You Don’t Have to Be Jewish, which rose to No. 9 the Billboard charts. When Arlene was unavailable to work on the sequel record, she recommended Valerie Harper to take her place.
At about this point in her career, the strains of the years of struggle were taking their toll on Arlene and Mike’s marriage. They eventually divorced in 1967. Arlene also was about to make her break for Hollywood. “I was getting offers in California,” Arlene recalled. My first actual TV work there was ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ in 1963.”
That same year Arlene landed her first Hollywood-based movie role, as Marge in Love with the Proper Stranger (with Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood). She followed that film with a part in Diary of a Bachelor in 1964. (That year, Arlene also did the pilot for a TV series called “The Bean Show,” which didn’t sprout.)
Her next feature film was Harvey Middleman, Fireman in 1965 (with Charles Durning) in which she had a larger role and even got to dance with the fleet-footed Durning. That film was followed by the comedy Penelope in 1966 (again with Natalie Wood and also Jonathan Winters, Peter Falk and Lou Jacobi). “Arthur Hiller, the director, called me and said, ‘I’ve got a lovely little cameo for you,'” Arlene remembered. “My character’s name was Honeysuckle Rose. I was supposed to have a West Virginia accent, but I don’t think I ever did get that accent quite right.”
Though her heart was still with the legitimate theater, (“I really wanted to do plays,” she said wistfully), Arlene continued to receive many offers for film and television work. She was in an “ABC Stage 67” production of The Love Song of Barney Kempinski with Alan Arkin in 1966 and she continued to show her flair for comedy in the first of three appearances in “That Girl” and in an episode of “The Flying Nun” in 1967.
Arlene appeared in three feature films released in 1967. She was in the William Castle film The Busy Body (with Sid Caesar, Richard Pryor and a host of other comedy legends). The success of that performance led to her getting a contract with Paramount. (It was a five-year deal that turned into one year after an upheaval in studio ownership and leadership.)
In her other 1967 releases, Arlene played Mae in Welcome to Hard Times (with Henry Fonda) and she was in Hang ’em High (with Clint Eastwood, Ben Johnson, Pat Hingle and Alan Hale Jr.). “The first day of the shoot,” Arlene recalled, “Clint walked over and asked, ‘How are you, Arlene?'” A bit surprised that he apparently knew her, Arlene said, “I’m just fine, thanks. How are you?” It was only then that Arlene realized that Clint was the same person as that tall, skinny fellow who had been “sort of a nerd” in her acting class years earlier in New York.
About this time, Andy Griffith Show casting director Fred Roos, who Arlene happened to be dating at the time, suggested that she come in and do a reading for a part that he described to her as just a one-episode role as a bakery worker. “I went in to read for Bob Ross, the producer, and he didn’t even look up from his script during the entire reading. I was sure I hadn’t gotten the part, but when I got home, I got a call. I got the job.”
Arlene appeared as Boysinger’s Bakery worker Millie Hutchins in two episodes in 1967, early in the eighth season: “Howard’s Main Event” and “Howard and Millie.” Once the story line of Howard Sprague’s romance with Millie ran its two-episode course, Millie faded into the background for the rest of the final TAGS season.
But the stage was already being set for Arlene to come back as a regular cast member in the role of Millie Swanson (same character, different last name, and still at the bakery), who would be the girlfriend of Sam Jones (Ken Berry) in “Mayberry R.F.D.” Arlene appeared in a total of 49 episodes during the successful three-year run of “R.F.D.” as the sequel series to TAGS.
“It was wonderful to work on a series like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and then on ‘Mayberry R.F.D.,’ Arlene said about working on the shows where the casts and crews affectionately called her Noodles Galunck because of her cooking. “Everybody was so lovely. I loved Frances [Bavier] and everybody. But I wasn’t happy. In order to do the series, I had to turn down a lot of work. I still wanted to be on Broadway–and movies–but Broadway most of all.”
Indeed, Arlene’s movie career was completely on hold from the time she first appeared on TAGS until she could start getting it geared up again a couple of years after “R.F.D.” She did, though, manage to work in a few other television jobs during that time. She appeared in “The Big Valley” in 1967. And in 1968, she appeared in episodes of “I Spy,” “Get Smart” and “That Girl.”
In 1969, newlywed Arlene and husband Larry Delaney appeared on the celebrity game show “It Takes Two.” (George Lindsey had introduced the two to each other.)
As “Mayberry R.F.D.” was wrapping up its final season, Arlene’s number of guest appearances on TV shows began to accelerate. In 1971, she did episodes of “Sarge,” “Hollywood Television Theater” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The next year she appeared in episodes of “Love, American Style,” ‘The F.B.I.,” “M*A*S*H,” and “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law,” as well as in the TV movie Call Holme.
Her movie career began to come back to life in 1973 via TV with the role of Liz Fowler in The Bait, a made-for-TV movie starring Donna Mills and William Devane. Another made-for-TV film followed in 1974 with The Elevator (starring James Farentino, Roddy McDowell, Craig Stevens and Myrna Loy). She also played Linda in 1974’s Nightmare (also known as Nightmare in Badham County, with Chuck Connors, Ralph Bellamy, Tina Louise, Robert Reed and Della Reese.)
During this time, Arlene also did lots of TV commercials. “I became Miss Commercials,” she laughed. Among her most memorable spots were a long-running one for Orkin Pest Control in which she played a mom and another for Yuban Coffee. “My Mom still says that it’s the best thing I ever did. She just loved it!” Arlene laughed.
Back in episodic TV, Arlene appeared in “All in the Family,” “Barnaby Jones” and “Honeymoon Suite” in 1973 and in episodes of “Maude,” “Chase,” “The Girl with Something Extra” (in an episode in which she marries the character played by Don Knotts), “Police Woman” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1974.
In all, Arlene appeared three times on “MTM.” She played Betty Bowerchuck, the daughter of Chuckles the Clown, both before and after the nutty clown’s death, including an episode as Ted Baxter’s girlfriend. Arlene was considered for the role of Ted’s steady girlfriend, but the producers thought she seemed too serious for someone who would fall for the goofy, vain newsman.
The next year, she was back for another “Barnaby Jones” and another “Maude,” plus an episode of “The Family Holvak” and an installment of “Wide World of Mystery.” She also appeared in another TV movie that year, as Charlotte in The Secret Night Caller (with Robert Reed and Hope Lange).
Some other highlights from Arlene’s TV work in the 1970s were episodes of “The Cop and the Kid” in 1975; “The Streets of San Francisco” in 1975 and ’76; “The Rockford Files,” “Alice,” “The San Pedro Beach Bums,” and a special called “Alan King’s Final Warning,” which also featured Don Knotts, in 1977; “One Day at a Time” and “Taxi” in 1978; and the first of five episodes of “The Love Boat” in 1979.
Arlene’s marriage to Larry Delaney ended in 1977, but her feature film career was flying high again with Airport ’77 and an all-star cast that included George Kennedy, James Stewart, Joseph Cotton, Jack Lemmon and Olivia de Havilland.
In 1979, Arlene played Stella Sweetzer, a regular on the series “Joe & Valerie,” which was in its second partial season on NBC. More and more, though, Arlene’s work was shifting to feature films. She played Jean Ricardo in The In-Laws, released in 1979 (directed by Arthur Hiller, with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk.)
The next year saw the release of The Last Married Couple in America in which Arlene played the role of Sally Cooper. (The cast included George Segal, Natalie Wood, Richard Benjamin and dear friend Valerie Harper.) Two other feature films of the early 1980s were Separate Ways in 1981 (with Karen Black) and as Mrs. Chrystal in My Tutor in 1983.
In 1980, Arlene was thrilled to be able to perform again on Broadway, this in I Won’t Dance at the Helen Hayes Theatre. It was a special show for Arlene not only because it would be her last Broadway show but because playwright Oliver Hailey wrote a part in it just for her and because she was nominated for a Tony Award.
Flipping back once again to the small screen, some of Arlene’s work during this period included the first of six episodes of “Fantasy Island” and another of her five episodes of “The Love Boat” in 1982 and the first of five episodes of “Gimme a Break” in 1983. She worked on “The Law and Harry McGraw” and with pal Valerie Harper in the first of two appearances on “Valerie” in 1987, and she did an episode of “Growing Pains” in 1988.
She also appeared in three episodes of HBO’s “1st & Ten,” a sitcom for “mature audiences” featuring former pro football players, including O.J. Simpson for most of its run.
Back in the early 1970s, Arlene had started doing voice work. Her first job had been as the voice of Debbie for Hanna-Barbera’s “Speed Buggy” cartoon in 1973. Arlene’s later voice work would include “The New Yogi Bear Show,” “Capitol Critters” and “The New Scooby-Doo Movies.”
Other series and specials Arlene appeared in over the years include “Trapper John, M.D.,” “The Nurses,” a “CBS Afternoon Playhouse” production of Help Wanted, a “Bob Hope Special” with David Niven, “Drexel’s Class,” “Police Story,” “Simon & Simon,” “Benson” (for which she was strongly considered for a regular role), “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Bronx Zoo,” two episodes of “Matlock” (with Andy Griffith, of course, but also with Arlene’s close friend Julie Sommars), “Murder, She Wrote” and five appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” She also performed in one of only two episodes of 1990’s “Sunset Beat,” which starred future “ER” hunk/Batman/Nespresso pitchman George Clooney.
Picking up the trail of Arlene’s movies became a little harder as her film work during the late 1980s and through the 1990s often was in either gritty independent/arthouse productions or else in horror movies that sometimes found their most lucrative market by going straight to video release.
Among Arlene’s films during this span were Detective School Dropouts in 1985, Foxtrap in 1986 (with Fred Willliamson), Survival Game in 1987 (with Chuck Norris’s son Mike), as Mom in Dr. Alien (1988) and the more readily available Gumshoe Kid in 1990. She also played the role of Claire in the well-received The Age of Innocence in 1990 (directed by and starring Dyan Cannon). Arlene also appeared in Skeletons with James Coburn, which premiered on HBO in 1997. Her last film role was as Annette in a 2005 episode of “The King of Queens” called “Inn Escapable.”
For many years, Arlene taught a highly-respected acting classes and workshops in the “on-camera, cold-reading” technique. Among the actors she worked with were buddy (and Emmy winner) Valerie Harper, Emmy winner Mariette Hartley and Oscar and Emmy winner Halle Berry. (Clint Eastwood, Dyan Cannon and Arthur Hiller also set in on her classes.)
“The technique stresses innovation and motivation,” she said. “I tell my students, ‘You’re giving the audience your love, which is your talent. You’re not looking for anything in return. Acting is fun!'” She added this advice: “Don’t pick a movie for the part. Look at the whole thing”–although she acknowledged that few actors, herself included, can make themselves do so. “We always get the script and go right to our own parts to see if we like them,” she laughed.
And there’s no doubt that fans appreciated Arlene’s friendliness and the love she gives to every audience where she performs. She was a popular guest star at three of the largest Mayberry reunion shows in the mid- and late 1990s. They were the first occasions that many Mayberry fans had the chance to meet her. Both she and fans had hoped that she could attend the annual Mayberry Days festival in Mount Airy, N.C., but the logistics never worked out to make that dream come true.
Just five days after her appearance at the third of the gatherings that she was able to attend (the Memories of Mayberry festival in Kannapolis, N.C., on September 28, 1997), Arlene married Los Angeles businessman Chris Haenel. The date happened to be October 3, the 37th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of TAGS. “Really? How about that! That’s amazing!” Arlene exclaimed when learning about the coincidence.” They were married for several years, but later divorced.
Arlene was widely regarded as on one of the nicest people in all of show business, and also one of the most fun to be around. And that’s not just the opinion of her fellow humans. Animals loved Arlene, too, and she loved them. She was deeply involved in numerous animal advocacy groups, most especially Actors & Others for Animals.
It was a devotion that Arlene shared with her dear friend Jackie Joseph (aka Romeena to Mayberry’s Ernest T. Bass), who was married to Ken Berry at the time Arlene was playing Millie, the girlfriend of Ken’s Sam Jones character on “Mayberry R.F.D.” Arlene and Jackie remained close friends for more than 50 years, until Arlene’s passing.
Arlene will forever be a beacon of happiness and enthusiasm, not only for the family and friends who were blessed to know her, but for the millions who will continue to enjoy her performances. Between “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Mayberry R.F.D.”, only ten actors appeared in more combined episodes than Arlene. And none was more radiant. She will continue to bring smiles to the faces of generations of audiences in Mayberry and far beyond.
Thank you, Noodles Galunck!
Arlene’s survivors include her sister, Zorine, seven nieces and two nephews.
The Bullet of 1998 and now The eBullet of 2021 are grateful to Arlene for being interviewed for this story and for kindly sharing photos from her career. We also continue to appreciate the contributions of David Fernandes and Dale Robinson (both of whom are sadly now deceased as well) for providing supplemental research for the original Bullet version of this profile.–ed.