Mary Jo Catlett found fame after becoming ''the roach lady''

M*A*S*H gave the cherished character actor her first recurring TV role.

"What does B.J. stand for?" the character actor Mary Jo Catlett asks in a 1976 M*A*S*H episode called "The More I See You."

It’s a question many fans had been asking in the real world, but she didn’t get the answer they were wanting.

"Practically anything!" Hawkeye jokes in response.

In the scene, Catlett is playing a visiting nurse who is roommates with Blythe Danner’s character, one of Hawkeye’s former flames. It’s Catlett’s job to be overly amused by Hawkeye and B.J.’s attentions, serving as a foil to the coolness that Danner brings to the scene.

This episode was one of Catlett’s earliest, most prominent TV roles, and she did such a great job that she would be brought back twice more to guest on M*A*S*H before it ended, including her first-ever recurring role.

Earlier in her career, she’d taken bit parts on hit Seventies shows like The Waltons and The Bob Newhart Show. But not even a recurring role on M*A*S*H would do for her career what a commercial casting would do for Catlett the next year after she appeared on the hit show: make her a star.

In 1977, Catlett went to a casting call for a commercial for a pesticide company called Black Flag. It was one of many casting calls in Catlett’s life where she expected the casting director to shout "next!" before she even opened her mouth.

But as most people who recognize Catlett as "the roach lady" now know, Catlett did get the part and becoming Black Flag’s national spokesperson made her just as popular a figure in mainstream culture as Flo from Progressive is today.

She told the Columbus Herald in 1982 that the first year the commercials started airing, people would approach her on the street and scream, "I know you! You’re the roach lady!"

Catlett never even wanted to be an actor when she was a kid, let alone "the roach lady."

She instead dreamed of becoming an opera singer. To pursue this, she studied singing in school, but when she graduated, it was with a teaching degree.

She tried to make it as a singer, anyway, but eventually, she took a job as a phone company representative. In this career, she mostly was just trying to convince her own friends to buy the phones. She was such a bad salesperson, she rarely could finish a pitch, even to friends.

"I was always on the verge of telling them no, don’t take it, you don’t need it," Catlett told the Daily News in 1972. "So I quit."

Saving $800, she rented the cheapest apartment she could find in New York and tried again to pursue her dream of singing, this time in musical theater. Her whole life she’d been the sort of person who just plain likes other people, but she said the people of New York were not exactly welcoming to her sunny disposition.

"When I said hello to passersby, they’d be frightened or turn away as if I were crazy," Catlett said. "I stopped."

Although New York didn’t quite feel like it was warming to her, Catlett had some immediate success being cast in plays where critics watched her "giving so exquisitely realized a performance that it ranks as one of the year’s finest anywhere," and soon they started gushing in their columns how her performances were "so perfect, that indeed the moment is magical."

In 1973, one of her directors told the Hartford Courant that it wasn’t just critics swooning. Catlett had charmed everyone around her. "She’s a beautiful person," the director said. "She’s as nice off-stage as she seems to be onstage. We’re very much in love with her."

Catlett attributed this success to being a type that casting directors sought, but anyone familiar with her comedy knows she has that "it factor" that makes her every performance so memorable.

As her Black Flag commercial made her more familiar than ever to audiences, more and more TV casting directors caught on to Catlett’s unique brand of niceness.

Then in the Eighties, Catlett’s fame grew even more when she took on the housekeeper role of Pearl Gallagher on Diff’rent Strokes, and she’s been cracking up audiences in TV and movie appearances ever since. She also became a popular voice actor after joining the main cast of the cartoon show SpongeBob SquarePants.

But it was the Black Flag commercials that made it all possible, helping Catlett move up from that ratty New York apartment into a house of her own.

"I am very grateful to roaches," Catlett said. "Because of those commercials, I was able to afford to buy a house and a new car, too. So, roaches aren’t all bad."

Although Catlett is often typecast as a sugary-sweet gal, she never minded playing a villain to roaches everywhere.

"That’s a little strange, you know, because I love all animals," Catlett said. "And I even love a lot of insects – aren’t praying mantises beautiful? I even love bees. But really I have very little sympathy for roaches."

Watch M*A*S*H on MeTV!

One Full Hour

Weeknights at 7 PM

*available in most MeTV markets
 
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?
Close

18 Comments

Post a comment
texasluva 2 months ago
Clueless in Texas- That'd be me-topping out at 6 for 10. Now you get to guess again in The Monday Fun Day Movie Quiz.

Movie Guessing Quiz time......Yep, time to take your best shot at guessing with some clues provided. Don't fret. If no one guesses you get more clues. Easier to the frontal lobe ones. This here block-buster should be in ones library. Once someone takes down the mystery then ALL get to share. If it was me I would sure get the lowdown where this movie is located and bookmark it to death. Does this movie has some stars in it? Yes galore. At least a half dozen you're gonna know flat off when see names and faces. Two of the leading stars have played in Twilight Zone episodes. Six of the top stars have played in just about every type of movie and TV series save one (who is just a movie star of proportions) only being a super guest star when he showed up on TV shows. Some of the other actors showed up in Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Hour, Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Hawaii Five-O, The Fugitive and dozens of block buster movies. The main plot is: they are on the lookout for something and someone. Some wonderful background scenes and music. Technicolor. This here movie near top of the movie chain.
Some mighty fine Trivia will be added at the conclusion of quiz.

We also have some mighty fine entertainment. One might ask. What's your favorite cartoon. I believe it is the one below. Others also amuse me. POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN: Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) (Remastered) (HD 1080p).


Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.
.

Bad Day At Black Rock - One Armed Man Cafe Fight Scene.
.

Sorry Demos it's all in fun. Plus it was like 70+ years ago. Best one liner.


Golden Eye Opening.
.

Movie stars dancing to...'I'm So Excited!'.
.

Kavinsky - Nightcall "Drive".
.
RichLorn 2 months ago
I've spent the night in one or two roach motels myself.
BeckyNoll 2 months ago
No mention of her long-running Spongebob character, Mrs. Puff?
musicman37 BeckyNoll 2 months ago
You must not have read the ENTIRE article.
Jon 2 months ago
I remember Mary Jo Catlett from MASH and the Black Flag commercials, and I recognized her voice when I saw part of a Spongebob episode with my nephew years ago. I recognized her from an appearance years earlier when a local station reran "The Littlest Angel", the HALLMARK HALL OF FAME production from 1969 that starred Johnnie Whitaker in the title role. She didn't have any lines, but I recognized her as an angel in a small part. She was quoted once as saying that she was recognized as "La Dama de las Cucarachas" when visiting a Latin American country, so her Black Flag commercials gave her international recognition to a degree.
JosephScarbrough 2 months ago
Interestingly enough, I know McLean Stevenson did commercials for Black Flag YEARS before M*A*S*H.
MarkSpeck 2 months ago
She was in the Murder, She Wrote episode set on a plane, "The Corpse Flew First Class", where she and actor/director Gene Nelson played a couple who was acting very strangely, which naturally made Jessica suspicious, the way she was holding her carry-on bag...could they be the jewel thieves and also the possible killers as well?

Nope! She had something in her bag she shouldn't have had, but it wasn't the stolen jewels...it was her adorable little doggie!!
waccooga 2 months ago
She also does Voice acting, most prominently as Mrs Puff on Spongebob.
JosephScarbrough waccooga 2 months ago
Wow. I hate SpongeBob, but now that I think of it, Mrs. Puff's voice always did sound familiar to be, but I could never put my finger on why.
paulbm 2 months ago
Don’t forget she was on The Dukes of Hazzard for two episodes as swamp Mollys daughter
WordsmithWorks 2 months ago
"The Nurses" is one of my favorite M*A*S*H* episodes.
It used to be one of mine as well, if only because I think it was the first time we really saw that Margaret truly had feelings underneath that cold and tough exterior . . . but after repeat viewings, my fondness for it had diminished, because the more I think about it, the less this even feels like an episode of M*A*S*H, or more like an entry from an anthology series - I guess because, other than Margaret, the main cast has very little to do with the story, and it's carried more by a number of one-shot supporting characters.
Jon JosephScarbrough 2 months ago
Margaret wasn't in this particular episode. Loretta Swit missed some later Season 4 episodes because she'd taken the female part in "Same Time Next Year". Alan Alda took the male part in the movie version shortly after this. She also missed the last episode filmed for Season 4, "The Interview", so Margaret had to wait until the Season 7 hour-long episode "Our Finest Hours" to speak with Clete Roberts.
Kenner 2 months ago
Mary Jo is still with us!! At the ripe ole age of 83!
Andybandit 2 months ago
I remember her in the 70's when I was a little kid in the black flag commercial, and laughing at it.
LoveMETV22 2 months ago
Mary Jo Catlett is a likeable character in most all of her roles. Always enjoy seeing her in various shows.
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?