Kathryn Joosten, the Emmy-winning actress best known as the irascible Karen McCluskey on Desperate Housewives and President Bartlet’s trusty secretary Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing, died Friday, June 1, of lung cancer. She was 72.
Joosten’s memorable roles on the two Emmy-winning dramas — she played the no-nonsense Dolores Landingham on Wing for three seasons and became a series regular on Housewives in 2004 — were particularly significant because of her late entry into Hollywood. The star, who working as a psychiatric nurse in Illinois and living with her husband and two sons, decided to follow her lifelong dream of acting after her marriage broke up in 1980. She took classes from Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre and landed bit parts in community stage productions, and then Joosten — who moved to Los Angeles in 1995 — slowly began scoring small TV roles on shows like Family Matters, Roseanne and NYPD Blue. It was The West Wing, though, that solidified her spot as a beloved character actress. While she didn’t have a large role, Joosten was so beloved that when Sorkin killed Mrs. Landingham off in a fatal off-screen collision with a drunk driver, a California state assemblyman delivered a tribute to her character and called her “a great American.”
While political praise was nice, Joosten’s move to Wisteria Lane finally got her the industry accolades she deserved. Her Mrs. McCluskey got to utter some of the dramedy’s best lines (“We going for drinks or mammograms?” she once said to Nicollette Sheridan’s Edie, after giving her clevage-baring outfit a once-over), and earned Joosten the Outstanding Guest Actress Emmy in 2005 and 2008. The star — a former smoker who first battled lung cancer in 2001 — was preparing for her fifth season of Housewives when she got the news in August 2009 that her cancer had returned. “I’ve got a little hang up here,” she told People.com. “But we’re going to handle it and move forward.”