Dena Dietrich, a longtime stage actress who became a familiar face in countless households via her sardonic portrayal of Mother Nature in '70s and early '80s Chiffon Margarine ads, died Saturday, November 21, at 91.
Dietrich died at the Motion Picture Country Home, where she had remained active. She left no survivors.
Born in Pittsburgh, she studied stage acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with the likes of Grace Kelly (1929-1982) and lifelong friend Anne Bancroft (1931-2005).
In the mid-'60s, she toured the country in Funny Girl, with impressionist Marilyn Michaels (b. 1943) doing the Barbra Streisand (b. 1942) part, in both sense of the word. Dietrich understudied for Lillian Roth (1910-1980), who she later called "lovely" but "crazy," and who was often absent at show time.
In 1968, she made an inauspicious Broadway debut in Here's Where I Belong, the musical version of East of Eden. In spite of a book by Terrence McNally (1938-2020), the show opened and closed the same evening.
She had vastly better luck with The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971-1973). She was in the original cast of the big hit, alongside Lee Grant (b. circa 1925) and Peter Falk (1927-2011).
In 1971, she was cast as Mother Nature, performing her in a uniquely wisecracking way, and as an indomitable broad with salon-coifed hair and a facility for zingers, in stark contrast to the sort of earth mother one would expect. In the ads, Mother Nature expresses her frustration at having mistaken Chiffon Margarine for real butter, venting by proclaiming, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" punctuating her words with thunder and lightning.
Her nemesis in the ad was the teasing voice of actor Mason Adams (1919-2005).
She would do the ads for a decade, and moved to L.A. for that and other lucrative TV and movie parts.
In her movie debut, she played Timothy Bottoms's (b. 1951) mother in the Arthur Hiller (1923-2016) film The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder (1974), the Disney flick The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), and a memorable bit in the Roman sequence of Mel Brooks's (b. 1926) History of the World: Part 1 (1981).
Warned to expect that History of the World: Part 1 scene partner Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) would be difficult, she instead befriended the comic actress, and singled out the film as her favorite movie experience.
Though she was all over TV — including playing Dorothy's sister Gloria on a 1991 episode of The Golden Girls — her favorite television job was one of her last: playing an eccentric judge on the Stephen Bochco (1943-2018) drama Philly (2001-2002).
One of her only on-camera interviews that remains widely available: