Teri Garr found early visibility with a mixture of dramatic and comic roles before maturing, so to speak, into her persona as a smart comedienne typecast as an eccentric ditz. Her warm, fluffy presence and great sense of timing made her a Hollywood mainstay, still finding regular work into her fifties, with her intelligence forever providing depth to a panoply of sweetly goofy supporting roles.
The progeny of old-school, low-level industry types — vaudevillian Eddie Garr and wardrobe mistress Phyllis Garr — the actress was born as Terry Garr on December 11, 1949. She had launched into a professional dance career by age 13, working with the San Francisco ballet and joining a touring company of West Side Story. Her toes soon tapped her into the movies, providing her steady work during the 1960s in such films as The TAMI Show, What a Way to Go, and John Goldfarb Please Come Home, with her first actual appearance coming in the Elvis Presley vehicle Fun in Acapulco (1963). Her tiny speaking role in the 1968 Monkees movie Head brought her enough attention to land her work as a featured player in a handful of early-’70s television variety shows: The Ken Berry “Wow” Show, The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, and The Sony and Cher Comedy Hour.
Francis Ford Coppola gave Garr her first major film role with 1974’s The Conversation, where she played Amy, the girlfriend of Gene Hackman’s surveillance man Harry Caul. With her next part, however, she proved herself impossible to pin down, going the opposite direction to play the riotously accented maidservant Inga in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974). From here she began a string of playing mothers and wives in high-profile films, few of which allowed her to dabble in her sillier side: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Oh, God! (1977), and The Black Stallion (1979). It wasn’t until Tootsie in 1981 that she received full recognition for her talents and started to become identified with her knack for playing charmingly sweet airheads. She received her one and only Oscar nomination as Sandy, the neurotic soap actress.
Tootsie proved an early career peak for Garr; although she continued to get a decent amount of prominent film work (Mr. Mom, Miracles, Mom and Dad Save the World, Dumb and Dumber), she never again made the same forceful impression, keeping her plate full but slipping into the background. Garr became ubiquitous as a TV movie actress, ushering in a slightly more earnest period of her career, as well as a drop in prestige. With such projects as Stranger in the Family (1991), Deliver Them From Evil: The Taking of Alta View (1992), and Fugitive Nights: Danger in the Desert (1993), she could be counted on to tackle the hot-button topic of the week on network TV.
Although the ’90s provided her few meaty movie roles, she did indeed thrive in television, including countless sitcom guest spots, as well as vocal work on the animated series Batman Beyond. Her most widely seen guest appearance was as the estranged birth mother of Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) on NBC’s Friends. In addition to it being an uncanny case of casting by physical resemblance, Garr’s character provided the perfect explanation for the source of Phoebe’s wackiness. Garr also seemed to symbolically pass the torch to Kudrow, her heir apparent in lovable flightiness.