As my colleague Mandi Bierly wrote in her recap of Sunday’s series finale of ABC’s long-running soap Desperate Housewives, Kathryn Joosten’s Mrs. McCluskey “was the real heart” of the episode.
Besides possibly nabbing herself a fourth Emmy nomination (and a third win) for playing the cantankerous Wisteria Lane neighbor for eight seasons, the big question for Joosten is: Where does she go from here? EW recently sat down with the 72-year-old actress to discuss how her ending came together on Desperate Housewives; why she’ll likely never work with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin again; her own fight with lung cancer; what’s next for her; and much more.
Right from the outset of the meeting, Joosten reminds us that Desperate creator Marc Cherry said he’d never kill her off the show when she first accepted the role. “He promised that right from the beginning,” Joosten says. “I just had come off The West Wing, where I got killed off. Then I got a soap opera where I got hung, you know? And then I was the first death for Zach [Braff] on Scrubs. I was his first death. So I had three deaths in a row. So when I got to Desperate Housewives, I said jokingly to Marc, ‘You can’t kill me off!’ Marc made the mistake of saying he wouldn’t kill me off. But then I made him repeat it again in public! I kept pushing on it, because it was like, What are they going to do with me? So it became, then he was committed. What are they going to do with me?”
But, alas, as the final season progressed, it became clear that Cherry had something different in mind for Joosten — something much bigger, a confession while dying from cancer that would help free Bree (Marcia Cross) from taking the blame for a murder and leave her character Mrs. McCluskey nothing short of legendary. “Marc came to me and said, ‘I know I said I wouldn’t kill you off…'” Joosten says. “It’s the end of the series, so he said, ‘Would you mind if we followed this cancer storyline?’ And my response was, ‘No, I think it’s a great idea, provided you do it the right way.’ I wasn’t about to tolerate any bulls–t soap opera crap. There were laughs, sure! But it was rooted in reality, too. So we’ve had some fun, and it’s a comedy and I love doing the comedy.”
Even though Mrs. McCluskey didn’t make it all the way to the end, Joosten found humor in the situation. “It’s a practice session if noting else!” she says with a cackle. “Come on, I’m 72!” But why is she always a target for dying characters on TV shows? “I’m hard to deal with,” she adds, with a grin.
On that note, Joosten can’t help but bring up her West Wing character Mrs. Landingham’s now-infamous death during the second season of that show. Joosten still contends that Mrs. Landingham shouldn’t have bitten the dust. “He wrote me out, and it was a mistake,” she says, frankly. “Aaron Sorkin was very awkward about it. He didn’t talk to me very much. I think he felt very bad that he wrote me out, so I don’t think I’ll ever be on an Aaron show, unfortunately. You’re not going to have a 72-year-old lady on Newsroom — I play someone’s grandma or mama. I won’t be a staffer there.”
Right after Sunday’s finale aired, Joosten was featured in a PSA for lung cancer, an issue that is very close to her heart. One of her biggest objectives is to raise awareness. “I’m the only one in Hollywood whose had lung cancer in all of these years? Hello?” Joosten says incredulously, when asked about why she so wants to get the word out about the fight against lung cancer. “The thought is: You did it to yourself. So people are ashamed. There’s the aspect that you can’t get insured, supposedly. Hello, I’m working! There’s the aspect of you being perceived as ill and not being able to work. If I can get any recognition of something going, just a conversation, that’s something. It kills more people than every other cancer, and we can’t even say the word. That’s my issue.”
Medically, Joosten’s lung cancer is in remission, but it’s still on her mind everyday. “Once you have lung cancer, it’s with you for the rest of your life,” she explains. “It may be active, it may be passive.” She just fought off a round of pneumonia — from running herself ragged — but it hasn’t slowed her down. “It’s not taking over my life,” she adds.
Joosten’s focus right now is on Sprite, the horse she bought. The actress originally intended to film a docuseries about her training Sprite, but it didn’t quite come together. “That wasn’t working out so well,” she says. “My schedule is just not allowing me to get over there the times I need to be. I’ve ridden for years. The idea that I could be a part of training this horse was great.”
But she doesn’t want to just horse around — Joosten wants to continue acting in scripted television. “I wanna work,” she tells EW. “My ideal would be to be on another top show with another occasional recurring. I don’t want to be a regular on anything. I’m done with that! I like to come in, lay a couple of bombs.” And she’s open to any genre, really — except reality. “I don’t want them in my bathroom anyway,” Joosten says. For her, it’s mostly about comedy…and maybe drama. “I love comedy, and I love drama,” Joosten says. “Comedy is fun, though. I like getting the giggle — come on, it’s fun to laugh. It’s fun to make people laugh! My parents were very funny people and it trickled down. I’d love to do a three-camera set up comedy again with an audience.” Commercials, too, appeal to her. But Joosten claims she couldn’t get commercial work “to save my life. I can’t even do Depends! I’m too well known to be a regular person, and I’m not well known enough to be something that people want to identify with. I’d love to do commercials! Bring on the product! I’ll glue my teeth to my mouth.”
Is retirement in her future? “Retire from what?” Joosten says. “From life? You know, it’s a joy. It’s fun. It’s playing. For me, it’s playing.” Joosten also concedes that she’s mostly fighting for the same roles with other actresses of a certain age — Cloris Leachman, Doris Roberts, and Betty White. “My joke is that as soon as soon as one of us dies, we all move up one,” Joosten says, with a laugh. “That’s reality! Betty is the flavor of the year. There’s no way around that. If I make it to 90, I’ll be the flavor of the year! We all go out for the same parts. Put a name in a hat and pull it out, I don’t care!
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky