“What does B.J. stand for?” the character actor Mary Jo Catlett asks in a 1976 MAS*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 MAS*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 MAS*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.”