Childhood & Early Life
Jo was born on September 6, 1936, in Lowell, Indiana, to Rose Irene and Joseph Lauraine Worley. She was the third of the five children of her parents. In 1962, Jo's parents divorced, after which her father married a woman named Nancy and had two sons and two daughters with her.
Jo was named “school comedienne” before she graduated high school in 1955. She then moved to Blauvelt, New York, where she briefly apprenticed with the 'Pickwick Players' musical theater. The apprenticeship helped her earn a drama scholarship to 'Midwestern State University' in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Jo studied at 'Midwestern' for 2 years and then joined the 'Los Angeles City College,' while simultaneously working with 'Pasadena Playhouse.' Soon, she earned her first musical role, in a production of 'Wonderful Town.'
In 1961, Jo appeared in the musical 'Billy Barnes People' in Los Angeles, which marked her first major break. The production later moved to ‘Broadway,’ where it ran for only six performances.
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Jo started her TV career as ‘Myrtle Tarantino’ in two episodes of the 'CBS' sitcom 'The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,' in 1960 and 1961, respectively. Subsequently, she guest-appeared in many TV series and had contract roles in a few of them.
In 1962, she made her film debut with brief roles in 'Moon Pilot' and 'Head.' Jo's first prominent film role was as ‘Katrinka,’ a local roller derby favorite and pastry assistant, in the 1976 comedy 'The Shaggy DA.'
In 1964, Jo was selected to appear as a stand-in in the original ‘Broadway’ production of 'Hello, Dolly!' In 1966, she appeared in an ‘Off-Broadway’ musical skit 'The Mad Show,' based on 'Mad,’ a humor magazine. That year, Jo was scouted by TV host and media mogul Merv Griffin, while she was working at her nightclub in Greenwich Village.
Merv offered Jo to be one of his first guest stars on 'The Merv Griffin Show,' where she eventually made approximately 40 appearances. In 1967, TV producer and director George Schlatter discovered her on the show and soon offered her the 'NBC' sketch comedy show 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In' (1968–1970).
In 1969, Jo performed in the musical 'Gypsy,' a 'Kenley Players' production staged at various theaters.
Jo quit 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In' in 1970 and began pursuing other projects. In 1971, she starred as ‘Debby Inglefinger,’ a doctor and an ultra-militant women's libber, in the comedy 'The Feminist and the Fuzz' and as ‘Cynthia’ in 'What's a Nice Girl Like You...?,' both 'ABC' movies.
Jo was the panelist on the radio comedy show 'It Pays to Be Ignorant' (1973–1974) and the 'NBC' panel show 'Match Game' (1974–1976). From 1973 to 1991, she was a recurring celebrity guest on the game show 'Pyramid' and its subsequent versions.
Jo performed in the regional theater productions 'Once upon a Mattress' (1974) and 'Anything Goes' (1978). Subsequently, she appeared in more regional theater productions, such as 'Annie Get Your Gun' (1982), and reprised her role in 'Hello, Dolly!' (1980). She had previously appeared as ‘Dolly Levi’ in the ‘Hello, Dolly!' (1973).
In 1978, Jo appeared in the Marc Daniels-directed TV movie adaptation of O Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi.' The following year, she appeared in the sketch comedy musical 'The Arthur Godfrey Special,' directed by Sterling Johnson.
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Jo was cast as ‘Rose’ in 'Gypsy: A Musical Fable' (1984), a production of ‘Melody Top Theater,' in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The following year, she appeared in the 'Welk Dinner Theater' production 'Same Time, Next Year.' She then performed in 'Call Me Madam' at the 'California Music Theatre,' Pasadena, in 1987. Jo was also part of ‘Nunsense’ at the 'La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' in 1991.
Jo voiced the character ‘Sgt. Bertha Blast’ (contract role) in the 'CBS' animation 'The All-New Popeye Show,' aka ‘The All New Popeye Hour.’ She became the voice of ‘Armoire the Wardrobe’ in the animated films ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), 'Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World' (1998), and 'Belle's Tales of Friendship' (1999). She later reprised the role in the role-playing action game 'Kingdom Hearts II' (2005) and its final mix in 2007. Some of her other notable voice roles are those of ‘Nose’ in 'The Pound Puppies' (1985) and ‘Miss Maples’ in ‘A Goofy Movie' (1995).
Jo appeared in cameo roles in 'Disney Channel' sitcoms such as 'Kim Possible' (as ‘Bonnie Rockwaller's mother), 'Wizards of Waverly Place,' and 'Jessie.' She voiced ‘Queen Morphia’ in the 1979 Japanese–American stop motion animated film 'Nutcracker Fantasy.' In 1989, Jo made her comeback to stage with the ‘Broadway’ play 'Prince of Central Park,' but the show was canceled soon after its opening performance.
Jo played ‘Mrs. Buzzard’ in the Bob Sykes-directed short 'The Elf Who Saved Christmas' (1992) and its TV version, 'The Elf and the Magic Key' (1993). In 2004, she was seen on the game show 'Hollywood Squares.'
Jo was cast as ‘the Wicked Witch of the West’ in the 1999 musical production of 'The Wizard of Oz.' The show ran briefly at the 'Pantages Theater,' Hollywood, California, and the 'Theater at Madison Square Garden.' It had a limited US tour.
From July to December 2007, Jo performed as ‘Mrs. Tottendale’ in the ‘Broadway’ musical 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' staged at the 'Marquis Theatre.' She reprised the role again at 'The Cape Playhouse,' from June to July 2015.
Jo played ‘Madame Morrible’ in the Los Angeles production of 'Wicked' from January 8 to August 24, 2008. She continues to perform the role in New York City and Los Angeles. In 2012, she featured in 'Carol Channing: Larger than Life Documentary,' directed and co-written by Dori Berinstein.
Jo also delivers lectures at various organizations and has served on the board of directors of 'Actors and Others for Animals,' a Los Angeles-based organization founded by actor Doris Day. The organization focuses on humane treatment of animals. She also often performs parodies of popular songs, as suited to her man-chasing personality.
Jo is a culinary enthusiast, too, and has been seen on the 'Food Network' shows ‘Ready... Set... Cook!' and 'Chef du Jour.'
Jo has always been known for her loud, manly voice. As a little girl, she once attended church and lip-synced the hymns out of fear that she might drown out everyone else.
In 1999, Jo was supposed to go on a tour, performing as ‘Pseudolus’ in the stage production of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.' Interestingly, she left the show only because her dogs were not allowed to travel with the crew. She was ultimately replaced with Rip Taylor.
On the recommendation of actor and director Gower Champion, Jo was roped in as actor Carol Channing's stand-by in the original 1964 ‘Broadway’ production of 'Hello Dolly!' She eventually went on to play the title role, replacing Carol, who was known for never missing a performance.