May 19, 2022

A veteran of TV gives storyteller her ‘gruff’ voice

You want to hear about my life?”

That’s the opening line for Mary Grace Canfield’s character Jane in “Women and the Sea.” At 80, Jane has been fishing for many years, and Canfield presents Jane’s story with humor and humanity. But once Canfield is offstage, it’s likely someone will ask her about Ralph Monroe, the character she portrayed for seven years on the popular 1960s TV sitcom “Green Acres.”

Although Canfield is best known for her work as the tomboyish sister in the carpenter team known as the Monroe Brothers on the show, she started her career as a stage and live TV actor in New York City, not far from her family’s home in Rochester.

By age 12, she knew she wanted to be an actor. “I don’t know what triggered it because my mother and father didn’t want me to go to the movies. But I did go,” said Canfield. “I sneaked to the movies. I devoured plays. I didn’t want to go to college because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Later when I asked my parents what they thought of this little skinny girl wanting to be an actress, they said they were so relieved I wanted to do something.”

While she was beating the sidewalks in New York City during the regular working year, Canfield worked summers at the Surry Playhouse, a popular seasonal theater that is now defunct.

“I loved Maine in my 20s – something about the sea and air, the whole thing,” she said. “It was always in the back of my mind that this is where I’d like to grow old and die.”

But before moving to Sedgwick full-time in 1984, Canfield established herself as one of the most recognizable actors in sitcom history.

Her career began in the 1950s, with TV, as well as Broadway and off-Broadway plays. In 1955, she was in an episode of “The Guardsman” with Franchot Tone, Margaret Hamilton and Claudette Colbert. “That was fabulous,” she said.

In the 1960s, Canfield left for Hollywood. By 1963, she had a shot at her own sitcom about a temping maid. The role went to Imogene Coca instead. By 1966, Canfield was making guest appearances as Mrs. Cravitz, the crazy neighbor on “Bewitched,” and landed the recurring role of Ralph on “Green Acres,” which she performed through 1971. Throughout the 1970s, Canfield appeared in episodes of “Adam-12,” “Love, American Style,” “General Hospital” and “The Love Boat.” She took occasional roles in the 1980s and 1990s, but has mostly been living in Maine, writing short stories and a screenplay, participating in community forums, often as a peace activist, and taking care of her family – she has two daughters, several grandchildren and is married to the artist John Bischof.

For the most part, her interest in writing has overtaken her work as an actor.

“If someone called me and said you’re going to be in a play tomorrow, I’d be thrilled,” said Canfield, who turns 80 this year. “But I don’t sit around waiting. I look back on the work I did in New York with great pleasure. I can’t say I enjoyed TV much, but it supported me. When I got the first call to do TV, it was like going from Mount Olympus to Filene’s Basement. But I couldn’t believe what they paid me.”

She says she doesn’t receive any royalties from her work on “Green Acres” or from the DVDs that have been released in recent years. Still, she has a kind of cult status among fans. And although she enjoyed playing Ralph and working with Eddie Albert, who played the New York attorney turned country farmer on the show, she wishes her legacy came from the earlier years she spent in New York.

“To be remembered for Ralph kind of upsets me – only in the sense that it was so easy and undemanding,” said Canfield. “It’s being known for something easy to do instead of something you worked hard to achieve.”

Although “Green Acres” has been popular with more than one generation of TV viewers, it struck her as silly – people climbing poles to use telephones, a pig with human status, and sliding doors that always came off their hinges. Years later, she watched the show again and enjoyed it. “I thought it was very funny,” she said. She doesn’t watch much TV now – some public TV, “Jeopardy” and the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “Then we turn it off and read,” she said.

Local audiences are likely to find her memorable in her role as a pithy fisherman with a spunky storytelling gift. In fact, it was Canfield’s assured storytelling technique that prompted director Judith Jerome to ask her to be in “Women and the Sea.” Jerome, who knew Canfield’s TV work only by reputation, first witnessed her dramatic style during a poetry reading at a local church event.

“My feeling was: OK, mark that. That woman can really deliver a line,” said Jerome. “She has this wonderful character voice. It’s gruff. It’s a full voice. You really feel like you’re meeting somebody. But it’s also that she means absolutely every word. She will take a line of text and put so many beats into it. A single line will have so much texture.”

For Canfield, the return to stage is a return to her first love. And a way to keep her craft honed.

“When was the last time I was onstage? I can’t think back that far. Possibly 1964,” said Canfield. “Because I hadn’t been onstage in a long, long time. I wondered if I could still do it. I liked the script and thought it would be stimulation.”

Does she miss working in TV? No, she says: “The reason I don’t miss it is because I didn’t like being in California. It wasn’t my kind of place. I think I wasn’t very happy there. I’m much happier here.”

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like