Gave up a career in medicine to become an actress, receiving two Emmy awards in the process
Kathryn Joosten, who has died aged 72, proved an inspiration to all those nervously considering a midlife change of career when, in her early forties, she gave up her job as a psychiatric nurse to follow her dream of becoming an actress. By the end of her life she was an award-winning performer known to millions of viewers of the television series The West Wing and Desperate Housewives, the final episode of which was shown on RTE last week.
Her stock in trade was the crotchety-old-woman-with-a-heart-of-gold, which genre won the characters she played enormous affection with audiences. Such roles also offered her the chance to deliver charmingly caustic put downs and so make the most of limited screen time. Even the President of the United States, as played by Martin Sheen in The West Wing, was not spared the waspish one-liners of Joosten's Mrs Landingham, his on-screen secretary.
Mrs Landingham was eventually killed off (run down by a drunken driver), but Kathryn Joosten soon found another role to suit, as the nosy neighbour Mrs McClusky in the hugely popular Desperate Housewives. Twice -- in 2005 and 2008 -- the role brought her an Emmy award.
But it had by no means been an easy transition. Kathryn Joosten was the mother of two boys when, in 1980, her marriage to a psychiatrist in Chicago ended in divorce. Rattled by her own mother's deathbed confession that she regretted not having pursued her dreams, Joosten determined not to make the same mistake by signing up for acting classes at the Steppenwolf theatre company in the city.
She won parts in local amateur and semi-professional theatre productions, as well as the odd television part, but her new career was hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. She had to make ends meet with painting and decorating jobs and, 10 years after her career transition, applied for a job at Disneyworld in Florida. She spent a year there, a time she later claimed marked her move from amateur to professional actor.
Bolstered by the experience she headed, in 1995, to Los Angeles. She had no agent and no contacts, but among the hordes of well-toned young beauties hoping to make it big in Hollywood, she stood out. "I had it easier because there are literally thousands of beautiful, sexy young twenty-somethings trying to get started," she noted. "I was 55 and able to do comedy. At the time sitcoms were all the rage, and there were plenty of smaller roles for funny old ladies." Five months after arriving, she won her first part.
She was born in Chicago on December 20, 1939 and as a child harboured ambitions of becoming an actor. Instead she entered the medical profession, as a nurse at a medium-security psychiatric unit of Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago.
After marrying and starting a family, she settled down as a housewife in Lake Forest, a suburb of the city. But her comfortable life was disrupted when what she later described as her husband's alcoholism led the couple to split. Kathryn Joosten, a single mother of two, rapidly re-evaluated her options and embarked on the career which was to bring her fame and satisfaction.
In 2001, however, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. After treatment she was declared free of the disease, only for it to recur, in her other lung, in 2009. Again she prevailed, but she recognised that "cancer will be with me for the rest of my life, be it as a nodule, tumour or cell someplace, or in my fears and anxieties".
She became a fierce advocate for lung cancer awareness, speaking at events and raising funds. A long-time smoker herself, she said that lung cancer had "a stigma because of the relationship to smoking -- 'you did it to yourself' -- and therefore the belief that somehow it is something to be ashamed of". But she argued that the cancer "is far more lethal, and a bigger killer of women than all the other cancers combined" and that she was "irritated and disappointed" by the "oceans of pink" that successfully raised awareness and money for "sexier" breast cancer.
Because of her campaign work she agreed to allow her illness to be written in to the plot of Desperate Housewives. The final episode of the final series centred around the death of her character. It was broadcast in the US three weeks before Kathryn Joosten's own death.
She is survived by two sons.
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