When Randee Heller’s mobile phone rings, it plays the riff to George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” This would be an odd ringtone for a 63-year-old most famous for playing Daniel-san’s doting mom in The Karate Kid, if she weren’t a total broad with a smoggy Long Island accent and a bellowing laugh so full-bodied it rivals Phyllis Diller’s. Her Mad Men character, the scene-stealing Miss Ida Blankenship, is just as intriguing: Behind her rusty exterior, Don Draper’s incompetent, silver-wigged secretary is hiding a delightfully bawdy past.
What do you make of Miss Blankenship?
Ida got around, didn’t she? How did she end up the “Queen of Perversions”? I can’t tell you that — in fact, I have a gun to my head now.
How many episodes are you in?
I can’t … you have to watch the show.
Well, what do you think she does after hours?
She has more sex. No! I think Ida, you know, has calmed down a lot. I don’t imagine she’s been married or has ever been married. She gave her life to Sterling Cooper. I think she goes home, makes herself dinner, and probably gets into bed and finishes the crossword puzzle.
Are you getting recognized at all?
No one recognizes me. And after that racist line last week, I was kinda glad! Matthew Weiner said, “You’re not gonna like this, but we’re gonna make you look terrible.” It takes three hours. They do incredible things with adhesives and scrunching up your face, and then blowing it dry with powder. All of a sudden you have huge wrinkles, liver spots, veins — and it takes a while to take it off. After the first time, I got in the shower and started scrubbing my arms. I was going, “Oh my God, this is not coming off!” Then I realized they were my own liver spots [cackles loudly].
Has anyone ever told you that Blankenship looks like Dame Edna?
That’s what I heard! It’s funny how all of these iconic characters … they bundle us all up into old ladies with glasses.
Why do you think folks like her so much?
The show is almost like a Greek tragedy sometimes. I think this bumbling, wise-cracking character is really classic — almost Shakespearean. He would infuse these kind of farcical characters [into his plays]. I think a lot of people like her because it is a relief from the tension. And she reminds you of an old aunt or something from the past. Or maybe people are missing that age group on television.
Tell me you still talk to Ralph Macchio.
We’ve been hooking up over e-mails and texting each other ever since the Karate Kid remake. No, I didn’t see it. But it’s always, “Hi, mom!” He calls me mom.
Though you’re more recognized for playing The Karate Kid’s Mrs. Larusso, you actually got a lot of attention a few years before that for playing a role on Soap as one of TV’s first lesbian characters.
This was back in ’81 or something like that. In those days, we got perms. So I had this long hair with this big perm. I showed up to work, and they said, “We’re gonna have to straighten your hair.” I said, “What’s the difference?” “Because we’re worried that you’re playing a lesbian, and you have this big hair. It’s just too out there; it’s too much.” Seriously. They were so afraid. They wanted to make her a very conservative type. Even though it was groundbreaking, they were so afraid. When my character went to kiss her girlfriend, they said, “Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh. No, you can’t do that.”
Did you worry about any homophobia hurting your career?
Yeah, I did. And then I stopped worrying and said, “Look, you’re an actress. You do a good job, and you should be recognized for the work you do.” I got a lot of nice e-mails … uh, letters. Lesbians were proud that they were finally represented on TV in a pretty good light — even though Alice was trying to commit suicide.
Then you lived the gay-male dream of working with Barbra Streisand, acting onstage during her “Timeless” concert in 2000.
It was kind of an autobiographical piece where she flashes back to her past. I played Barbra’s mother. Her real mother was there; she was in her 90s in a wheelchair. I don’t even think she was aware of what was going on. So you get onstage with this 75-piece orchestra, and it would just blow you away. 50,000 people!
Tell me something we don’t already know about Barbra.
Some people are funny onstage or on-camera, and then they’re the most serious people in the world. She’s funny all the time. She’s a naturally kinetic soul. And, um, she loved the stock market. She wouldn’t go out at night, because she’d say, “I have to get up in a couple of hours and [check] on the stock market.” I think she liked that more than singing at the time.
So do you have a gay following yet?
Not to my knowledge. I did when I did Soap. There may be a whole groundswell here for Ida Blankenship. She’s on the rise.