Celebrate Mother’s Day With These 15 Stuntcasted Sitcom Moms
Mother’s Day is upon us. For most of us, that requires some very specific plans to honor our own moms. You make a trip to Hallmark (not the grocery store) for a nice card. You make a reservation at a brunch spot… back in February, to make sure mom wouldn’t have to wait. And perhaps you make a promise to yourself that you’ll call or at the very least text your mother more, and if you’re a very good child, you might even keep up that resolution past the Fourth of July.
But if you don’t want to have the kind of Mother’s Day that commercials typically dictate, you can spend Sunday with some mothers from TV — specifically, famous ones who were brought in to play a series regular’s mom (and maybe notch an Emmy nomination while they’re at it).
Ellen Burstyn, ‘Mom’
The thing about calling your show Mom is that every female parent you subsequently cast has to nail the part. In the early going of CBS’ sitcom, Bonnie (Allison Janney) tells us a fair bit about the troubled childhood that contributed to her disordered substance use — in particular, that her own mother abandoned her, leaving Bonnie to be raised in foster care. But in “Terrorists and Gingerbread,” the Season Three premiere, Bonnie and her mother are reunited. Mom always mixed real pathos with its comedy plots, and that was especially true here, as Bonnie’s mother Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) reaches out hoping to make peace, and Bonnie ponders the kind of relationship she wants them to have — or if they should have one at all. You don’t have to get an Oscar winner to play a role like Shirley, but it doesn’t hurt.
Diahann Carroll, ‘A Different World’
A Different World immediately establishes Whitley (Jasmine Guy) as a Southern belle with extremely specific ideas about how to live life, and extremely ready judgments for anyone who doesn’t conform. Where could such a woman come from? Well, from a mother like Marion (Diahann Carroll). Through Carroll’s nine appearances on the series, we see that Marion was instrumental in Whitley’s having developed a gift for insults so sugary-sweet that their targets may not even notice they’ve been attacked. Bonus: Many of Carroll’s best spats find her facing off against Adele, mother to Whitley’s eventual husband Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison). And Adele is played by none other than Patti LaBelle.
Glenn Close, ‘The Simpsons’
Abe “Grampa” Simpson (voice of Dan Castellaneta) was part of The Simpsons before The Simpsons was a stand-alone show, appearing in the short “Grampa and the Kids” in a 1988 episode of The Tracey Ullman Show, before The Simpsons spun off from it. But little was known about Homer’s other parent, Mona, until the seventh-season Simpsons episode “Mother Simpson.” Prior to that point, flashbacks to Mona (in which she was voiced by Maggie Roswell) showed her as a typical mid-century American homemaker. Homer (also Castellaneta) had believed Mona was long dead, but when multiple Oscar nominee Glenn Close took over the role, we learned that Mona had left the family after getting involved in leftist activism — who can say how many 1960s housewives were similarly radicalized by Joe Namath’s sideburns?! — and was still wanted by the FBI for sabotaging a lab full of germ warfare experiments. Mona recurs in later-era episodes, but none is as poignant as the first.
Susie Essman, ‘Broad City,’ ‘Bless This Mess’ and ‘Harley Quinn’
After starting out as a stand-up comic, Susie Essman made an indelible impression as the virtuosically profane Susie Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm, establishing herself as an actor. After that, Essman’s profile was high enough for her to be cast on Broad City as Sandi, mother to Ilana (Ilana Glazer). A Long Island doyenne, Sandi’s trips to New York City to see her children are always memorable, whether she’s tearing it up at the nail shop or hunting for the most convincing knockoff purses.
Essman may not have the widest range as an actor, but she seems to have staked out her terrain playing TV’s Jewish mothers. Here she is playing Donna, mother to Lake Bell’s Rio in the tragically short-lived and underrated Bless This Mess, about a couple of New Yorkers who inherit a farm in Nebraska…
…and as Sharon Quinzell, mother to the artist currently known as Harley Quinn’s eponymous anti-heroine.
Chip Fields, ‘The Facts of Life’ and ‘Living Single’
Character actor and later director Chip Fields is a lot less famous than the other mom-portrayers here, but I could not possibly sign off on a list of mom stuntcasting on sitcoms without including her. Fields recurred on The Facts of Life as Diane Ramsey, mother to Tootie; Tootie was played by Kim Fields, Chip’s real-life daughter. As a working actress in the entertainment industry, which doesn’t exactly brim with opportunities for Black women, Chip may not have had to dig too deep to perform this argument about, among other things, Tootie’s desire to become an actor:
In the next decade, Chip and Kim would play mother and daughter again when Kim was cast in another sitcom revolving around a female foursome: Living Single.
Teri Garr, ‘Friends’
On Friends, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) had the spottiest family history: Her mother, Lily, died by suicide; her father Frank (Bob Balaban) left her family and then one more that we know of; her twin sister Ursula (also Kudrow) is basically a sociopath; and while we’re supposed to be happy for her brother, Frank Jr. (Giovanni Ribisi), when he finds love with his home-economics teacher Mrs. Knight (Debra Jo Rupp), that requires us to forget that when their relationship started, it was technically felonious. So when Phoebe tracks down Lily’s best friend Phoebe (Teri Garr) on a trip to Montauk and finds out that Phoebe Sr. is actually Phoebe and Ursula’s biological mother, it’s a relief — and excellent casting of a character whose “flingy” attributes are apparently genetic.
Years later, it would be Kudrow’s turn to be stuntcast as a mom who’s not quite up for the job: roller-coaster enthusiast Lori-Anne, mother to Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; and on Space Force as Maggie (mother to Erin, played by Diana Silvers), incarcerated for “very serious crimes” that are never actually revealed.
Honorable mention to the many other stuntcast moms of Friends: Marlo Thomas (That Girl) as Sandra Green, mother to Rachel (Jennifer Aniston); Christina Pickles (St. Elsewhere) as Judy Geller, mother to Monica and Ross (Courteney Cox and David Schwimmer); Brenda Vaccaro (Midnight Cowboy) as Gloria Tribbiani, mother to Joey (Matt LeBlanc); and Morgan Fairchild as Nora Tyler Bing, mother to Chandler (Matthew Perry).
Anna Maria Horsford, ‘New Girl’
Though she’s best known to viewers of a certain age for playing Deacon’s daughter Thelma on NBC’s church-centered sitcom Amen, Anna Maria Horsford has been a steadily working actor since the 1970s, with roles across all on-screen genres. Case in point: She already co-starred in History of the World, Part II earlier this year. By far my favorite of her mom roles is New Girl’s Charmaine. When she was originally introduced in Season Two, she didn’t get much to do but disapprove of Schmidt (Max Greenfield), roommate to Charmaine’s treasured son Winston (Lamorne Morris). When she returns in Season Six, it’s for a much meatier storyline: Winston has joined the LAPD, but because he knows how much his single mother Charmaine dotes on him, he’s kept his career change from her via elaborately faked episodes of his sports radio show. Charmaine’s immediate bond with Winston’s new fiancée Aly (Nasim Pedrad) forces him to rethink how he’s been deceiving Charmaine. A scene in a discount retailer that is definitely NOT TJ Maxx proves pivotal.
Like Friends, New Girl also went big on stuntcasting: Let’s hear it for Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All At Once) as Joan Day, mother to Jess (Zooey Deschanel); Nora Dunn (Saturday Night Live) as Louise, mother to Schmidt; and Margo Martindale (Justified) as Bonnie Miller, mother to Nick (Jake Johnson).
Eva Longoria, ‘BoJack Horseman’
Since her breakout role as Gabi in the soapy dramedy Desperate Housewives, Eva Longoria has been leaning further into comedy. In front of the camera, she’s starred in the sitcom Telenovela and recurred on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. She’s also worked in comedy behind the camera, as a director and/or producer on Jane The Virgin, The Mick and Black-ish. And she’s done comedy on productions where she might never be near a camera, voicing roles in The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, The Boss Baby 2: Family Business and BoJack Horseman.
Longoria’s role in the last of these is even less appropriate for children than the average BoJack: She plays Mrs. Buenaventura, mother to Yolanda (Natalie Morales). Yolanda has been dating Todd (Aaron Paul), and the time has come for her to introduce him to her family. She has yet to disclose to them that she’s asexual, and asks Todd to join her in pretending they’re sexually active. What possible reason might their sex life come up at a family dinner? Well, her father has written sex books, her sister is a sex columnist and her mother is an accomplished adult film star. So… it does.
Constance Marie, ‘How I Met Your Father’
Since getting cast as George’s wife Angie on The George Lopez Show, Constance Marie has rarely been off our TVs or streaming services. Her (initially) ABC Family show Switched at Birth premiered just a few years after the end of The George Lopez Show; then she had a recurring role on Elena of Avalor; then a series regular role in an adult animated show, Undone; and is about to return for the second season of With Love, a Prime Video romcom series from One Day At A Time creator Gloria Calderón Kellett. This year, Marie also made time to stop by How I Met Your Father and originate the role of Raquel, Long Island real estate mogul and mother to Val (Francia Raísa). Opposite Mark Consuelos as Val’s father Juan, Marie must convince the audience that she’s in such a hot couple that even late twentysomethings (like Hilary Duff’s Sophie) are ready to make out with either or both of them. Spoiler: They nail it.
Laurie Metcalf, ‘The Big Bang Theory’
Longtime colleagues and roommates Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) had very different origin stories. Leonard was raised by Beverly (Christine Baranski), a neuroscientist with multiple PhDs. Sheldon was raised by Mary (Galecki’s former Roseanne co-star Laurie Metcalf), an East Texas woman who’s so born-again that she formerly worked as a church secretary. Mary may not entirely understand science in general, or Sheldon in particular, but as this compilation of her best moments shows, her ability to to love her son and his friends is as infinite as her supply of folksy expressions:
When CBS greenlit the single-cam prequel series Young Sheldon, the show found the perfect performer to play young Mary: Zoe Perry, aka Metcalf’s daughter.
Rita Moreno, ‘Jane The Virgin’
Netflix’s 2017 beloved cult hit remake of Norman Lear’s 1970s and 1980s sitcom One Day At A Time introduced Rita Moreno — already an Oscar winner for West Side Story — to a whole new audience as Lydia, mother/overbearing roommate to Justina Machado’s new divorcée Penelope. It’s an iconic role, but two years before, Moreno made her début on another beloved TV comedy. On A Different World, Marion showed the audience how a character like Whitley might come by her extreme self-absorption honestly thanks to the influence of a narcissistic parent, and on Jane The Virgin, Jane’s father Rogelio (Jaime Camil) makes a lot more sense once we meet his mother Liliana (Moreno), who is pretty much obsessed with him.
Moreno extended her run of stuntcast sitcom matriarchs this year as Dolores, George’s (George Lopez) grandmother, in a January episode of Lopez vs. Lopez — though since she’s technically playing Dolores’s ghost, haunting George’s house, it’s unclear whether one should expect further appearances.
Megan Mullally, ‘Happy Endings’
At first, Penny (Casey Wilson) seems to be a bit on the flighty end of the spectrum — although, compared to Jane (Eliza Coupe), nearly everyone is. Then we meet Penny’s mother Dana (Megan Mullally), a thrice-divorced itinerant lounge singer who formerly enlisted a young Penny in a mother-daughter cabaret act. Penny and Dana’s intermittently functional relationship is strained when Dana starts dating Big Dave (Michael McKean), father to Dave (Zach Knighton), one of Penny’s best friends — right around the time it seemed like Dave and Penny might be drawn to one another themselves. The women’s capacity to work through their emotions is also limited by a practice, started by Dana during Penny’s childhood, for them only to argue with each other through improvisational song. But maybe Dana was on to something if their conflict can bring us musical numbers like this:
Debbie Reynolds, ‘Will & Grace’
One of the most enduring jokes of Will & Grace is that the titular Grace (Debra Messing) is obsessed with gay men. So who better to play her mother than someone gay men had been obsessed with for almost 50 years? As Bobbie Adler, a flamboyant firecracker who’s the toast of the theater scene in Schenectady, New York, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds got to show off all her talents: singing, dancing, impersonating Mae West and the impeccable timing required to put down her daughter with devastating effect. It’s a tour de force.
Once again, Will & Grace used parent casting to bring in A-list talent. Let’s give it up for Blythe Danner (Meet the Parents) as Marilyn Truman, mother to Will (Eric McCormack); Veronica Cartwright (The Witches of Eastwick) as Judith McFarland, mother to Jack (Sean Hayes); Suzanne Pleshette (The Bob Newhart Show) as Lois Whitley, mother to Karen (Megan Mullally); Judith Ivey (Women Talking) as Eleanor Markus, mother to Grace’s husband Leo (Harry Connick Jr.); and Ellen Albertini Dow (The Wedding Singer) as Syl, Karen’s mother-in-law.
Elaine Stritch, ‘30 Rock’
Speaking of showbiz legends, the only one on this list who’s really in Reynolds’s league is Elaine Stritch. Her legacy was secured as soon as she appeared in the seminal documentary Original Cast Album: Company (watch it, then watch Documentary Now!’s parody, Original Cast Album: Co-op). Mostly a Broadway actor, Stritch had considered sitcoms: As she told it, in a one-woman show in the early aughts, she had the opportunity to read for Dorothy in The Golden Girls, but the thought of working “with Betty White every day would be like taking cyanide.” (The eventual stars have a different recollection, but it’s still a good story.)
Anyway: Dorothy might not have panned out, but another caustic senior citizen came along later, and Stritch was cast as Colleen Donaghy, bitter mother to Alec Baldwin’s Jack. A success in all aspects of his life, Jack can still be psychologically assaulted by a visit from Colleen, a merciless fault-finding machine the show’s producers deployed with admirable judiciousness.
More famous moms dotted this long-running production, too: Catherine O’Hara (Schitt’s Creek) as Pearline, mother to Kenneth (Jack McBrayer); Patti LuPone (Broadway’s Evita) as Sylvia Rossitano, mother to Frank (Judah Friedlander); Mary Steenburgen (The Last Man on Earth) as Diana, mother to Jack’s wife Avery (Elizabeth Banks); and Jan Hooks (Saturday Night Live) as Verna Maroney, mother to Jenna (Jane Krakowski).
Rita Wilson, ‘Frasier’ and ‘Girls’
Famously, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) lives with his father Martin (John Mahoney). A retired detective, Martin’s mobility is compromised from a gunshot to the hip, and he moves in with Frasier for, initially, at least, safety reasons. Though Frasier’s psychotherapist mother Hester appeared in one episode of Cheers, the show that introduced him — played by future Sopranos star Nancy Marchand — by the time Frasier is launched, she has been dead for some time. Come the seventh-season premiere, Frasier has a meet-cute at Cafe Nervosa with children’s book author Mia (Rita Wilson) and invites her on a family trip. So far so normal, until Martin and Frasier’s brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) meet her and blanch: It hasn’t occurred to noted Freudian Frasier that his latest love interest looks exactly like his late mother; footage from an old home movie reinforces the casting retcon.
Years later, Wilson would recur as Evie Michaels, mother to Allison Williams’s Mia, in the HBO dramedy Girls; thanks to Frasier, she already had experience performing in a comedy full of characters who were only somewhat capable of addressing their own mental health.