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Each of The Big Bang Theory characters is iconic in their own right, but there’s only one fans knew and loved for her voice alone.
Mrs. Wolowitz (a.k.a. Howard’s mom) was voiced by Carol Ann Susi, and appeared — audibly — on 40 episodes of the CBS series, which was the number-one sitcom on TV for close to eight years running. The character was most famous for her unbeatable brisket, for her domineering approach to parenting, for coddling her son and his friends, and for almost never appearing on screen.
The show’s creators deliberately kept Mrs. Wolowitz to just her booming, New Jersey-accented voice — though they occasionally teased audiences with tantalizing glimpses. On episode 24 of The Big Bang Theory season 5, Mrs. Wolowitz can be seen dressed in pink among the guests at Howard (Simon Helberg) and Bernadette’s (Melissa Rauch) wedding, as the camera spans away from the rooftop. And on season 6, episode 15, when Raj (Kunal Nayyar) visits Mrs. Wolowitz for one of her famously huge dinners, viewers can briefly see her through the kitchen doorway, walking back and forth wearing a floral dress.
However, outside these two flashes, Mrs. Wolowitz is mostly left a mystery. Here’s why The Big Bang Theory never showed one of the show’s fan favorites on screen.
Chuck Lorre was paying tribute to another sitcom
The Big Bang Theory creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre intentionally placed Mrs. Wolowitz in a prestigious line of sitcom characters who are heard but never seen. Notably, he wanted to reference Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda, a spin-off of The Mary Tyler Show that ran from 1974 to 1978. In 2012, actress Carol Ann Susi told Cleveland.com’s The Plain Dealer that she wasn’t sure if Mrs. Wolowitz would be a recurring character until after her second episode, when Lorre told her, “Carlton the Doorman. That’s the kind of thing we’re going for here.” She added, “He said, ‘You don’t mind not seeing the hair and makeup people for the next 10 years?’ And I said, ‘Not at all, as long as I get paid.'”
Lorre never publicly expounded on his thought process behind keeping Mrs. Wolowitz a perpetual mystery. However, before The Big Bang Theory season 6 aired, executive producer Steve Molaro shared with The Hollywood Reporter that the shot of Mrs. Wolowitz at her son Howard’s wedding was supposed to be the first and last time audiences ever saw her. “Isn’t she better left to the imagination?” said Molaro. “There are no plans to actually see her on camera and I think it’s probably better that way.” As mentioned, though, Mrs. Wolowitz actually did appear on episode 15 of that season, but the surprise was worth the slight deception.
From a story perspective, hiding a character builds them up in an audience’s mind to a point where they can be far more comical than any real person. However, one theory posed by a fan suggests a different reason as to why The Big Bang Theory never showed Mrs. Wolowitz apart from those two tiny glimpses. The idea points to Howard and Mrs. Wolowitz’s contentious relationship, which mostly involves the pair shouting to and at each other. This plays out more comedically when she’s off screen and the yelling happens over the phone or out of sight — but if viewers actually saw Mrs. Wolowitz’s face when her own son berating her and criticizing her appearance, it would be quite an uncomfortable experience — and might make Howard seem borderline abusive.
Actress Carol Ann Susi passed away in 2014
Given that we did glimpse Mrs. Wolowitz again after the wedding (despite Molaro’s claims), there’s a chance that she would have appeared on future episodes of The Big Bang Theory. But when actress Carol Ann Susi died of cancer on November 11, 2014, series producers said they couldn’t imagine finding someone else to step into the role. Instead, they had Mrs. Wolowitz pass away on the show as well.
However, in tribute to the actress and her character, The Big Bang Theory continued the trope of the heard-but-unseen figure that dominates Howard’s life. On season 10, episode 11, Bernadette gives birth to baby Halley, whose cries sound eerily like her paternal grandmother’s voice — and whom we never see onscreen, outside of enormous swaddles of blankets. Molaro told TVLine that this was partly a practical issue, helping the producers get around the logistical nightmare of having a baby on set. But first and foremost, it was a way to honor Mrs. Wolowitz: “[Halley] is a loving tribute to her grandmother — this is a nice way for us to keep [Mrs. Wolowitz] alive.”
The woman with the unmistakable voice and mouthwatering brisket may have been out of sight, but she was only ever a perfectly delivered line away from stealing a scene and the audience’s hearts.