Who Was Helen Martin?
Black actress Helen Martin was a guest star on many popular TV shows, mainly during the 1970s. Although 70s TV is considered the prime of Martin's career, her work actually spanned across six decades, starting from the 1930s.
Known mostly as a comedic actress, Martin is most famous for her role as "Weeping Wanda" on the iconic and classic TV series, Good Times. Helen Martin's fame never quite rose to the popular status of many other actresses of her time, but many of us still remember her well.
Helen Dorothy Martin came into the world on July 23, 1909, in St. Louis, Missouri. She first caught the acting bug in her high school days, performing in local theater groups.
After a failed attempt at college, she moved to Chicago before finally landing and planting roots in New York City. While living in the Big Apple, she became a founding member of the American Negro Theater in Harlem. She appeared in professional projects opposite other soon-to-be well-known actors, like Ossie Davis and Canada Lee.
Martin established herself by dancing, singing, and acting across many Broadway stages, and she managed to carve out a comfortable living for herself for many years. Her first big break came when she won a role, opposite actor Canada Lee, in the 1941 Orson Welles and John Houseman production of Native Son.
Several years passed before Helen Martin began to grace American television screens. Her first big television role was as the church sister in the neo-noir film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), opposite her old friend, Ossie Davis. The film also starred Raymond St. Jacques, Redd Foxx, and Calvin Lockhart.
Five years later, she went on to a juicy multi-episode role as Laura on the TV sitcom That's My Mama, opposite Clifton Davis and Theresa Merritt. It was after this role that she began to catch on. Soon after, she was everywhere.
She secured a small role in the historic 1977 miniseries Roots, and she scored guest spots on 70s TV staples like Maude, Police Woman, and Starsky and Hutch.
Because she was well-received by audiences, she won several more multi-episode roles in iconic shows like Sanford and Son, What's Happening!!, and Baby I'm Back. Then she struck gold on another popular black TV sitcom.
Helen Martin first appeared on Good Times in the episode "Florida Flips." In this episode, Martin didn't portray her signature role of "Wanda." However, her guess spot was still memorable because the character she portrayed put the prim and proper Florida Evans (Esther Roll) on the defensive by asking her about her sex life with her husband, James Evans, Jr. (John Amos).
Martin was a hit, so she was asked back for seven episodes. She became a semi-regular character as a neighbor and friend to the Evans household. Eventually, her character fell into the routine of showing up overly distraught at funerals and other sad occasions. This is how the character gained the moniker of "Weeping Wanda."
Helen Martin ushered in the year 1980 with yet another multiple-role spot. This time it was in the Alex Haley Depression Era vehicle, Palmerstown U.S.A., opposite Bill Duke, and a young Michael J. Fox.
Just as she had done in the 1970s, Helen Martin flowed through the 1980s with plenty of guest spots. She secured roles on iconic 80s TV shows like Alice, Benson, Hill Street Blues, The Jefferson's, St. Elsewhere, and many others.
At the end of the decade, Helen Martin struck gold yet again. This time she landed the role of Pearl Shay, yet another neighbor. In this role, she was neighbors to Marla Gibbs and Jackee Harry's characters on the 80s TV hit sitcom 227.
227 was Martin's most enduring role as she appeared not as a guest star but as a series regular. She showed up in more than 115 episodes.
Fast forward to 90s TV, and you'll see that Helen Martin was doing more of the same, but this time she caught fire on both the small screen as well as the big screen.
Martin made the rounds on classic 90s TV shows like The Parent 'Hood, The Wayan's Brothers, and The Jamie Foxx Show. By this time, she was considered to be a well-established character actor.
As for the big screen, she appeared everywhere from Doc Hollywood (1991), House Party II (1991), Beverly Hills Cop III (1994), and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) to Kiss the Girls (1997), Bullworth (1998), and I Got The Hook Up (1998). Helen Martin stole just about every comedic scene in which she appeared.
Although most of us remember her from her many appearances on funny situation comedies throughout the decades, one of the absolute funniest spots she ever had was an appearance on Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show in 1999.
She visited with the late-night host while on tour to promote the film Don't Be a Menace. The scene is memorable because in it Martin speaks of her love for weed, she shamelessly flirts with Conan, and she does a fairly decent striptease for a woman of her age at the time. I don't think the host ever laughed so hard on camera since that episode.
Helen Martin counted many famous people as her friend during her lifetime, including Marla Gibbs and Redd Foxx. On March 25, 2000, the actress died of a heart attack. She never married and never had children, but she is missed by legions of fans both old and new.
© 2021 Rachelle Williams
Rachelle Williams (author) from Tempe, AZ on March 05, 2021:
Thank you Fran - I like how you reminded me that she was doing exactly what she loves - shouldn't we all be that lucky? Thanks for your support and I'm glad to have put her back in the forefront of your memory..
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on March 05, 2021:
Rachelle, thanks for the memories of such a lady. She was doing exactly what she loved. I didn't realize she was involved with Harlem or was single. She definitely should be remembered. Glad you did the article to remind us of her.
Rachelle Williams (author) from Tempe, AZ on March 05, 2021:
She was appeared to be an awesome lady, really relateable, you know? That interview she did with Conan had me dying... I do think she should be remembered, so I thank you for reading!
Pam Morris from Atlanta Georgia on March 04, 2021:
What an informative Hub. I enjoy watching Helen Martin on the big screen, but I did not know she never married or had children. I think I enjoyed seeing her on 227 alongside Marla and Jackee. Thank you for sharing what happened to her. She an excellent actress and dearly missed.
Rachelle Williams (author) from Tempe, AZ on March 04, 2021:
@ Dora Weithers - Yes ma'am! I agree, she certainly does deserve to be remembered.Helen Martin was definitely a comedy O.G. Did you see the way she made Conan O'Brien laugh? That was genuine stuff. Thank you so much for your enduring support MsDora!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 04, 2021:
I remember her well as weeping Wanda and on 227. I liked her too. Wasn't aware that she had done so much. Thanks for highlighting her life and her work. She deserves to be remembered.