A voice actor is, before anything, simply an actor. Marcia Wallace, who died Friday night in Los Angeles at age 70, proved that over four decades of making audience laugh on TV. A veteran of The Merv Griffin Show, the fiery-maned comedic actress became a fixture in the 1970s on The Bob Newhart Show, as Carol Kester, Bob’s sarcastic, spirited, single-gal secretary.
But in her longest-lived role, as The Simpsons Edna Krabappel, Wallace would create a memorable character using only the breath from her own mouth. Much credit for the character, of course, belongs to the show’s writers and animators, who gave Bart’s teacher her sardonic lines and jaded visage. But Wallace’s expressive, spiked-coffee voice made her into a person. A writer could type “Ha!” into a script; it took Wallace to invest it with a snarkiness instilled by years of pumping Springfield’s sluggard kids through the school system. In her voice (see video above), it could be a cry of joy, derision, or defiance.
Krabappel could easily have been a stereotype and a story device, the mean killjoy who butted heads with Bart and threw obstacles in his way. But over the years, Wallace helped develop her into one of the richest, and in a way most poignant, supporting characters on the show. Edna Krabappel bore the marks of working in a bureaucracy that expected little and promised less. Wallace’s snarky rasp suggested that she’d gotten used to plenty of disappointment in her life. (This was a teacher, after all, who showed her class a sex-ed film and dryly commented, “She’s faking.”)
And yet Wallace made Edna likeable in her cynicism and toughness because they were marks of a survivor. She may have been a cog in a machine, but she was her own cog; and that, maybe, was why Bart was both her biggest rival and the one Simpsons character she had most in common with. Wallace’s work on the character was irreplaceable, and The Simpsons’ producers have announced, wisely, that they won’t replace her. But she leaves a legacy for the comic voices of TV’s future; through Edna Krabappel, Marcia Wallace taught a master class. RIP.