Randee Heller, Emmy-nominated 'Mad Men' actress, on Miss Blankenship's enduring appeal

randee-heller-miss-blankenship.jpg
In between bedding one secretary and wedding another during Season 4 of "Mad Men," Don Draper ( Jon Hamm) briefly had different kind of executive assistant.

The rasping, lackadaisical and deeply hilarious Ida Blankenship, played by veteran character actress Randee Heller, stole scenes in each of her six episodes up until -- and certainly including -- the moment she fell over dead at her desk.

It's a role that dominated fan discussion and recaps during the series' summer 2010 run and could earn 64-year-old Heller an Emmy when the award for outstanding guest actress in a drama is doled out at the Creative Arts Emmys on Sept. 10.

But Heller, perhaps best known for playing Ralph Macchio's mother in "The Karate Kid," seems to be coming out on top either way.

As she lovingly referred to the character when Zap2it spoke with her on the eve of her big day, "Blankenship" has already led to an outpouring of support from her peers, an upcoming appearance on "Desperate Housewives" and a seat alongside the most-nominated cast and crew in TV at the Sept. 18 Primetime Emmys.

At what point did you realize this character might strike a chord the way she did?
I didn't! I knew that the crew was just so tickled by her and that there was a wonderful energy going around, but I had no idea it was going to have the impact. One of the younger production assistants on set came over to me at one point, and she said, 'I hope you're ready.' 'For what?' I asked, and she says, 'Don't you realize this character is going to get a huge following?' That was the first time I even thought about it.

Miss Blankenship looked like she was pushing 80. Are people surprised to find that it was you under there?
They hired me and said, 'We're going to make you look really terrible. Go have fun!' It was amazing. It was a two-hour make-up job. Blankenship came to be in the chair from all the talented makeup and hair people -- especially [fellow Emmy nominee] Ron Pipes. He did the makeup and created this very old-looking lady.

randee-heller-miss-blankenship-amc.jpg And then we find out that she was only 67 when she died.
People didn't live as long in those days. And women didn't have the kind of help that they have now -- or the desire or pressure. It was such a different era. The quest to look younger and do certain things just wasn't there. So there's this lady who's been working there for 40 years, coming in, day after day, wearing her wig. We're probably pretty close in age, but she clearly didn't take care of herself. And, evidently, she was sickly, because she dropped dead.

What did you know about her when you got the part?
I didn't know much at all. She was just loud and didn't follow the rules. As the weeks went on you would hear little things, and she ends up being the "queen of perversions." What? That's fantastic! You find out that she had a thing with Robert Morse's character (Bert Cooper), and I think she de-virgin-ized Roger ( John Slattery). She got around. She did a lot of things on that desk besides dying.

Did you get a heads up on her demise?
Because of all the spoilers, they play it real close to the vest. They told me it could be recurring, but they didn't tell me how many episodes. Once I found out she was going to die, Matt Weiner told me it was all preordained. And it was perfect. Anything more than that and... what would she have done, sleep with Don Draper?

What do you think Miss Blankenship would say about Don marrying her replacement?
You need a psychiatrist! It's enough already with the girls! Drink a little more...  There would be so many one-liners, better than I could write. I have no idea where that [storyline] is heading, but it can't be good. Because then it would be over. There's always got to be conflict. That's why it's such a great show.

How are you feeling, going into awards?
I'm over-the-top excited. I've got to calm myself down, but I'm gonna go with it and take it where it takes me. I think everyone is just so happy for me. It's a long career. I'm 64 and I've been in the business for 40 years, so I think it's a victory for those of us who've been in the business a long time. You don't get these kinds of opportunity as you get older.

What's on deck for you?
I just did an episode of "Desperate Housewives."

And you can't say anything more, right?
Nope. I can only say that I was a guest star, but we'll see what comes next.

randee-heller-ralph-macchio-karate-kid.jpg Silly question: Did you enjoy seeing your movie son on "Dancing With the Stars?"
Of course! I was was even on there for an interview the day he lost, at the end of the little montage. It was very quick, and you probably didn't recognize me. I don't look like Blankenship and I don't look like Lucille Larusso anymore. But Ralph is so nice. He's a doll and a real family guy, very down to earth. When we did "Karate Kid," he was 22 and 36, so I wasn't that much older. He had those kinds of hormones that hadn't kicked in yet.

They still haven't kicked in.
It's true! He's so youthful looking! I thought he was so mature for a 16-year-old, but then they told me he was actually 22. But he is such a great guy. We had a lot of fun. And we had no idea it was going to become a classic. I remember he came into my trailer one day, and he said, 'You know, we've got to change the title of this movie. It's just too cheesy.' And we sat there trying to change the title of "The Karate Kid."
Photo/Video credit: Bobby Quillard, AMC, Columbia