Dena Dietrich, the kindly face and fearsome power of Mother Nature to American television viewers in the 1970s, died Saturday in Los Angeles. She was 91.
The death was announced by SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union.
Dietrich was in her early 40s in 1971 when she filmed the first of the television commercials that made her image famous. Dressed as a goddess in a diaphanous white gown, wearing fresh flowers in her hair, she strolled serenely through forests and fields, stopping to dip her pinkie into a small bowl for a taste of “my sweet, creamy butter.”
When an off-screen voice informed her that what she was tasting was actually Chiffon margarine, the goddess snapped, declaring in a quiet but threatening voice, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” She then raised her outspread arms, thunder roared, lightning bolts flashed and — in some versions of the commercial — wild animals stampeded.
The ad campaign, created by D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, ran for almost a decade. When the commercials ended, Dietrich’s career as a character actress roared on.
During the 1980s and ’90s, she had guest roles on dozens of series, including the comedies “Murphy Brown,” “Mad About You” and “Life With Lucy” and the dramas “NYPD Blue” and “Thirtysomething.” She was a prison guard on “Trapper John, M.D.” (1981) and a self-important psychic conducting séances on “All My Children” (1994).
In a two-part episode of “The Golden Girls” in 1991, she was Bea Arthur’s visiting sister, who has a brief affair with the ex-husband of Arthur’s character.
By the time Dietrich found her favorite role, on the legal drama “Philly” (2001-2002), she had white hair. She played a tough judge who liked to bring her snarly pet dog to the courtroom.
“Yes, baby, yes,” she murmurs to the animal in one scene. “All these bad people.”
Deanne Frances Dietrich was born on Dec. 4, 1928, in Pittsburgh, the daughter of Mahlon Lloyd Dietrich, an electrician, and Helen (Wilson) Dietrich. After graduating from West View High School, she studied acting at HB Studios and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
She appeared in a variety of off-Broadway productions, among them “The Rimers of Eldritch” (1967), a murder drama by Lanford Wilson, at the Cherry Lane Theater.
What would have been her Broadway debut — “The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake” (1967), a generation-gap comedy — closed in previews, reportedly because its Hollywood star, Jean Arthur, was ill. Dietrich’s first official Broadway appearance was also brief: “Here’s Where I Belong,” a musical based on John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” opened and closed on March 3, 1968.
Then her luck changed. Dietrich played a sensible older sister in Mike Nichols’ Broadway production of Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971). The play, starring Peter Falk and Lee Grant as Manhattanites struggling through a bad economy, ran for almost two years and won two Tony Awards.
Live theater was a long-running facet of Dietrich’s career. She often told the story of being the understudy for Lillian Roth, who was playing Fanny Brice’s mother, in a national tour of “Funny Girl” in 1965. Roth made a habit of disappearing shortly before curtain time — or during intermission. Sometimes she came back. Dietrich learned to make quick costume changes.
In 2005, Dietrich was a Russian grandmother in “At the Beach House,” a drama by Aram Saroyan, in Los Angeles. Terry Morgan, reviewing the play in Variety, didn’t think much of it but gave at least one cast member solid praise. “Dietrich is quite good as the grandmother, who’s made of tougher stuff than her descendants,” Morgan wrote, “and her mix of kindness with a hint of steel brings the character to life.”
She worked in film, too. Her first was “The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder” (1974), as a misguided Vietnam veteran’s mother. In Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part I” (1981), she was a helpful citizen of ancient Rome, advising Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn) on partners for the coming orgy,
Her final screen appearance was in “Sister’s Keeper,” a 2007 crime drama about a contract killer.
No immediate family members survive.
In a 2005 video interview, Dietrich made clear that she had no regrets about being best known for her 30-second margarine ads. In fact, she admitted, her career had largely been limited to New York until she became Mother Nature and Hollywood started to call.
“I’ve loved everything I’ve done” as an actress, she said, then summed up her feelings in four words: “I’ve never regretted anything.”