Following the departure of both Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Garrett (for The Facts of Life) and replacement Nedra Volz as Adelaide Brubaker, Mary Jo Catlett joined the cast of Diff'rent Strokes as Pearl Gallagher, the Drummond household's final and longest-tenured housekeeper. During her three seasons on the show, Pearl saw Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges) through Kimberly's (Dana Plato) move to Paris; the arrival of future Mrs. Drummond, Maggie McKinney (Mary Ann Mobley) and son Sam (Danny Cooksey); a cameo from Mr. T; and numerous "Very Special Episodes" as the show strived for ratings and relevance in the mid-1980s.
In the decades that followed, Catlett remained a fixture on stage and screen, including one of the most iconic cartoons of all time. Read on to see what the veteran actress is up to now at age 83.
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She's logged dozens of roles in movies and on TV.
Early in her career, Catlett made guest appearances on TV series including The Bob Newhart Show, The Waltons, Fantasy Island, The Duke of Hazzard, and M*A*S*H. She continued her run of guest spots after Diff'rent Strokes ended, appearing in familiar '80s hits like ALF; Murder, She Wrote; General Hospital; and Night Court.
In 1990, she was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her role on General Hospital playing Mary Finnegan, the housekeeper of series lead Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers). One memorable storyline saw her helping her employer fake his own death.
More recently, Catlett has made guest appearances on That's So Raven, Cold Case, Glee, Two Broke Girls, Desperate Housewives, and Modern Family. Her most recent live-action TV job was appearing in two episodes of the NBC crime drama, Good Girls.
On film, Catlett played Rosemary Ackerman in John Waters' 1994 black comedy Serial Mom. She also had small roles in a handful of other films, including The Benchwarmers, starring Rob Schneider and David Spade, and Let's Be Cops, with Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr.
She found her greatest success behind the microphone.
Catlett's longest-running role has involved only her voice. In the '80s and early '90s she voiced characters on shows including The Smurfs, Rugrats, and the Disney series Bonkers and Quack Pack. In 1998, she landed the role of Mrs. Puff in a little forthcoming Nickelodeon series titled SpongeBob SquarePants.
According to a recent interview on the SpongeBob fan podcast SpongeBob BingePants, series creator Stephen Hillenburg specifically sought Catlett out for the role after seeing her in a play—though she's not exactly sure which one.
She's been in the role ever since, voicing SpongeBob's teacher across 13 seasons of the TV series, as well as in three feature films, eight video games, and, recently, two spinoff series: Kamp Koral: SpongeBob's Under Years and The Patrick Star Show.
Catlett had no idea Mrs. Puff would end up defining her career in such a big way. Remembering the casting process on the SpongeBob BingeCast, she explained, "My agent said, 'You know, It's just a little interim cartoon show to fill in for another one for the summer. it's only going to be in the summer.' Liar! Pants on fire."
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She returned to the stage.
Prior to her sitcom fame, Catlett was already a celebrated stage performer, who made her Broadway debut in the original production of Hello Dolly! in 1964 opposite Carol Channing.
After Diff'rent Strokes ended, she returned to theater, appearing in a regional revival of the musical The Pajama Game in Pasadena in 1989. Throughout the '90s, she also appeared in Los Angeles-based productions of Lend Me a Tenor, Beauty and the Beast, and The Music Man. Most recently, in 2011, she appeared in a production of the musical The Wedding Singer, playing Rosie, grandmother to the title character. The Los Angeles Times noted of her performance, "Mary Jo Catlett invests Robbie's hip grandmother with old-school aplomb."
She's put her talent to use in the fight against HIV and AIDs.
Over the years, Catlett has regularly joined benefit concerts raising money for the fight against HIV and AIDS. For example, she's made multiple appearances in the annual Help Is on the Way concert series, which supports the titular non-profit, an organization that supports children affected by the disease.
Catlett has been involved in the fight against AIDS since the early days of the epidemic. She was motivated to raise awareness after the passing of her close friend, the artist Robert Hoppe, who died of complications from AIDS in 1989.
The actor has also appeared in benefit concerts in support of the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly the Actors Fund), an organization that seeks to "provide a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals."
She considers herself mostly retired.
Well into her seventh decade as a performer, these days, Catlett considers herself "mostly retired"—save for her voice performance on SpongeBob SquarePants.
"I love my work," she said in a 2021 interview with Richard Skipper. "I wish I could do it more, but I know that age happens."
As part of semi-retirement, she will make an appearance in the 2023 film When the Moon Was Twice as Big, which was filmed prior to the pandemic.