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A Character Star Gets Her Perks Playing Coffee's Mrs. Olson

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Veteran character actress Virginia Christine still gets a kick out of being recognized on her travels, but it isn’t for any of her 400-odd movie and TV properties ranging from High Noon to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? “Hi, there goes Mrs. Olson,” an American tourist hailed her recently in India. The same thing happens even in her hometown, Brentwood, Calif. There the 59-year-old actress and her actor husband, Fritz Feld, are so popular they have just been installed as the town’s first co-mayors (an honorary position previously held solo by Fred MacMurray, Phyllis Diller and Lorne Greene).

The Mrs. Olson role Christine has been playing for the past 13 years is a friendly Swedish adviser to newlyweds on Folger’s coffee TV commercials. A household name west of the Mississippi, Mrs. Olson was a sitting target for Carol Burnett and Johnny Carson parodies which only last year made sense to the East Coast. That was when Folger’s took on Maxwell House’s Cora nationwide. (Cora’s played by another old pro, Oz’s Wicked Witch, Margaret Hamilton.)

So far the gambit seems to have worked: Folger’s, already No. 1, is inching further ahead. But Christine measures her success not in dollars but in the warm response of her viewers. “They consider me a friend, it shows in their faces,” she says, “and I’m a sucker for that.”

Off the account, she speaks accent-less English, but as the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants, she is indeed fluent in their language. Born in Stanton, Iowa (pop. 574), which has since redesigned its water tower as a coffeepot in her honor, Virginia tagged along with her musician parents on the old Chautauqua tent circuit. When she was 9, her father died and her mother married Swedish Lutheran minister John T. Kraft, who moved the family to California. There Virginia went to Long Beach City College (where she is now in the Hall of Fame) and later to L.A. City College. At a 1939 dinner held by the latter’s opera club (Virginia was president), she met Feld, 20 years her senior and by then an established stage and movie actor. He spent the evening pestering her with spitballs and love notes.

She rebuffed him, but not for long. “I had a conniving young mind,” she concedes. “I thought I’d take this guy for whatever he was worth.” Soon she found herself “falling into my own trap,” and in 1940 they were married. They have two sons and two grandchildren. Under Feld’s tutelage she made her acting debut, as Virginia Kraft, in his stage production of Hedda Gabler. When Warner Brothers offered a movie contract, she acquiescently changed her last name from Kraft to Christine. “It was during the war, and they thought Kraft was too Teutonic,” she remembers. “And they said I would be compared to Kraft cheese if I were bad.”

Christine’s first film role was an ingenue version of Mrs. Olson, a young Scandinavian girl in the Errol Flynn potboiler Edge of Darkness. Then followed Westerns, serials, horror movies and the TV treadmill. She had become a regular (Perry Mason, Wells Fargo) in 1964 when she was asked to do a coffee spot and turned it down. “I’d done commercials before,” she explains. “You had to smile and be phony, and that’s not my style.” Eventually she came around. “The spot was created to be warm and homey, to lend itself to realism,” she says,

and the product was acceptable (“That’s important to me”).

Over the years Mrs. Olson has changed from cleaning woman to family confidante. And now Christine feels so comfortable with her character that she needs only a few minutes before each take to learn her lines. Still, it takes a full hour of makeup to transform Virginia into Mrs. Olson. When she broke her toe in 1976, the entire spot was rebuilt around Mrs. Olson’s cast. People still stop her on the street to ask how her leg is mending.

Christine herself is a five-to-six-cups-a-day coffee drinker. But one perk her commercials do not bring is free coffee. “I used to buy whatever was on sale,” she admits. Now it is always Folger’s. “Think,” she exclaims, “what would happen at the checkout counter if I bought something else.”