'Mad Men's' Blankenship: Dying To Go To The Emmys

Sep 18, 2011
Originally published on September 18, 2011 4:24 pm

AMC's Mad Men is one of the big favorites at Sunday night's Emmy Awards — and this past season's most memorable character may have been Don Draper's new secretary, Miss Ida Blankenship.

Played by Randee Heller, Miss Blankenship was a departure from the attractive, attentive young girls that usually wait on Draper. She stole every scene she was in, even in death. Her passing was both shocking and comical and became one of the most talked-about moments of the TV season.

The role earned Heller, 64, her first Emmy nomination — as outstanding guest actress in a drama series. Heller didn't win; the Emmy went to Loretta Devine of Grey's Anatomy. But the experience has been "magic," Heller tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Mad Men is set in 1960s New York and revolves around the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper (which evolved into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce). Back in the '60s, Heller herself worked at a Madison Avenue firm, so she knows firsthand the difficulties that women faced in the workplace then.

"They just treated you like dirt. And women were second-class citizens, you know, 'Get my coffee,'...and everything has just changed so dramatically in the last 50 years," Heller says.

The role of Miss Blankenship and that memorable death scene has re-launched Heller's career. A few years ago, she was taking bit parts just to hold on to her health insurance and on Sunday night, at the age of 64, she'll make her first-ever trip to the Emmys.

Here's how she puts it: "I consider myself like Cinder-elder."

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(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

RANDEE HELLER: (as Miss Ida Blankenship) Donald Draper's office.

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RAZ: "Mad Men" is one of the big favorites at tonight's Emmy Awards. And if you watched any of this past season, the most memorable character was probably Don Draper's new secretary, Miss Ida Blankenship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

HELLER: (as Miss Ida Blankenship) Good morning.

JON HAMM: (as Donald Draper) Call the Pen and Pencil. See if someone found my award.

HELLER: (as Miss Ida Blankenship) What's the category?

HAMM: (as Donald Draper) Best Actress. It's a Cleo.

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RAZ: Ida Blankenship was a departure from the attractive attentive young girls who usually catered to Don Draper's every need, and she always stole the show, even in death.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut.

RAZ: Randee Heller played Ida Blankenship. The role earned her an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. Now, that category's winner's already been announced, and I'm sorry to say it wasn't Randee Heller. But the role in that memorable death scene has re-launched her career. And tonight, at age 64, she'll make her first-ever trip to the Emmys. And as for "Mad Men," well, she went out with a bang.

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HELLER: I was going to be found by the character Peggy played by Elizabeth Moss. And she comes down the hall and she's saying, "Miss Blankenship?"

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ELIZABETH MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) Miss Blankenship, are you all right?

HELLER: And she doesn't know I'm dead. My head is back where I set it up. I didn't want to look like I was dead. I wanted to look like I was sleeping. I was taking like a nap.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) Miss Blankenship.

HELLER: And so when she came by the desk to make sure that I was okay, she just kind of slightly touched the back of my shoulder...

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MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) Miss Blankenship.

HELLER: ...and I went down.

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MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) Oh.

HELLER: Clomp on the desk.

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MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) Caroline.

HELLER: There was pandemonium in the office.

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HAMM: (as Donald Draper) What now?

HELLER: Everybody was running around trying to figure out what they're going to do because they realize...

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MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) Oh, gosh. Caroline.

HELLER: ...this woman just died.

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MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) They can get a man, and we'll need a blanket.

HELLER: So they wrapped me up in a blanket.

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MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) There's an afghan on Mr. Crane's couch.

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HELLER: And they wield me past the conference room out the door. And nobody knew that Miss Blankenship was passing on to the other world.

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HAMM: (as Donald Draper) She seemed fine just a minute ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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RAZ: The character you played, Ida Blankenship, was great for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was Don Draper's first secretary who was not a, you know, sort of a young - a very young woman. And they have this kind of interesting relationship. Let's hear a clip from the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

HELLER: (as Miss Ida Blankenship) Your wife called earlier.

HAMM: (as Donald Draper) She's not my wife.

HELLER: (as Miss Ida Blankenship) Mrs. Francis said to remind you that you can't have the kids this weekend. It's very complicated. It's Bobby's birthday party Sunday.

HAMM: (as Donald Draper) It's Gene's birthday.

HELLER: (as Miss Ida Blankenship) Did you want me to buy him or her a gift?

HAMM: (as Donald Draper) No.

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RAZ: This - I mean, she was obviously...

HELLER: I had the best lines, Guy, and you have to be...

RAZ: The best lines.

HELLER: ...you have to say that.

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RAZ: And unlike all the other secretaries at Sterling Cooper, she's not the shrinking violet. I mean, she's got a lot of attitude.

HELLER: She sure does. And she didn't care about anybody and how they felt. You know, she just was there for years and years and just said and did exactly as she wanted to.

RAZ: You were a teenager during the '60s, during this period, and so presumably, you have a sense of what it was like to be a woman in an office environment at the time.

HELLER: Well, actually, I was about 18 to 20. And I did work on Madison Avenue for a short time before I went to college. And it was exactly that way.

RAZ: Wow.

HELLER: They just treated you like, you know, dirt. Women were second-class citizens. You know, "Get my coffee," and everything has just changed so dramatically in the last, what, 50 years?

RAZ: It's absolutely amazing. I know that you worked on Broadway for many years and that you have worked in Hollywood doing various parts. But I understand for a while you actually just kind of dropped out of acting entirely. What were you doing?

HELLER: Well, I guess it was my early 50s when I realized you sort of end up in this large sieve where the roles dry up. They're just nonexistent. And so I decided to drop out for a while. I kept the toe in the water because I wanted my pension, and I needed, you know, to have medical insurance. So I went back to school. I had my bachelor's, but I went back to school, and I got a degree in teaching adult education.

And I have to tell you, Guy, it was so rewarding. And, you know, there were times in the eight years that I did that, that I said: Now, this feels right to me. I should be here. And especially, they laughed at all my jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Now, I understand that - and obviously, as an Emmy-nominated actress, you are entitled not just to go to the award ceremony tonight but to walk down the red carpet. And I understand this is the first time you will ever have gone to a major Hollywood award ceremony.

HELLER: That is true. I consider myself like Cinder-elder.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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HELLER: You know, it sounds very corny and cheesy, but this is so magic. It's magic for me, totally, and very unexpected.

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RAZ: That's actress Randee Heller. She received an Emmy nomination for her role of Miss Ida Blankenship on AMC's "Mad Men." And she'll be walking the red carpet for the first time tonight at the Emmy Awards. Randee Heller, thank you so much.

HELLER: Thank you so much. I hope I don't trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HELLER: That'd be very Blankenship, wouldn't it? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.