Morrison died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from heart failure after a brief illness, according to publicist Lori DeWaal.
Morrison played Rosario Inés Consuelo Yolanda Salazar, a maid from El Salvador, in the original run of Will & Grace from 1999 to 2006, becoming part of a cast that won a Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble in a comedy series.
The character, originally written for a single episode, proved so popular in her interactions with co-star Megan Mullally that she would appear in 68 episodes during the NBC series’ eight seasons.
“Rosario is one of my all-time favourite characters,” Morrison said recently, according to a statement and biography announcing her death.
“She reminds me a lot of my own mother, who loved animals and children, but she would not suffer fools. It is very significant to me that we were able to show an older, Hispanic woman who is bright and smart and can hold her own.”
Besides the opportunity to portray a strong Latina, Morrison valued Will & Grace for its breakthrough TV depiction of gay characters, said her husband, Walter Dominguez.
“Shelley’s greatest pride as an actress was in playing the indomitable Rosario, in a comedy series that furthered the cause of social equity and fairness for LGBTQ people,” Dominguez said in a statement. “She believed that the best way to change hearts and minds was through comedy.”
Mullally took to Twitter to share her condolences after the death of Morrison.
“Just got a bulletin on my phone that Shelley Morrison has passed. My heart is heavy. Putting Shelley, her beloved husband Walter & their children in the light. Thank you for your friendship & partnership, Shell. You accomplished wonderful things in this world. You will be missed,” she wrote.
Debra Messing, who stars as Grace in the popular sitcom, wrote: “Oh, Shelley… what a loss. Our dear Rosario has passed on. Shelley had a career that spanned decades, but she will always be our dear Rosie. She was a kind soul with a huge heart and always had a smile on her face. All my love to Walter and the entire family.”
Eric McCormack, who plays Will on Will & Grace, said: “Shelley was a beautiful soul & wonderful actor. Her work as Rosario, season after season, was as nuanced and real as it was hysterical. She will be missed by everyone at #WillandGrace, she’s a huge part of it. Sending so much love to Walter and Shelley’s whole family. #Rosario.”
Sean Hayes, who plays Jack in the sitcom, posted a photo of Morrison as her character Rosario on Instagram.
“Such sad news. Our beloved Shelley Morrison passed away today. She was absolutely hilarious and had the biggest heart. She was a part of our Will and Grace family and will be greatly missed. My heart goes out to her entire family,” Hayes wrote.
When the revival of Will & Grace returned in 2017 with the four lead characters, things became more exciting as a variety of returning supporting cast members were announced to return as well.
But one big character was noticeably missing and Will & Grace addressed her absence, announcing the death of Rosario midway through an episode.
After suffering a sudden heart attack, Rosario was briefly hospitalized before ultimately passing away — offscreen.
After her death, Karen decided to give Rosario’s services a theme: a quinceañera.
Rosario’s services also brought back another fan favourite character. Lorraine Finster (Minnie Driver), Karen’s husband’s mistress, came to pay her respects to Rosario.
After cracking a couple of jokes, Karen told Rosario that she loved her and the episode ended with Karen placing her hand on Rosario’s coffin and saying “Te amo, Mami,” before she sat with her one last time.
The end of Rosario’s character was due to Morrison’s decision to retire from acting.
Morrison had a 50-year career as an actor and was also known for playing Sister Sixto on The Flying Nun alongside Sally Field from 1967 to 1970.
She guest-starred on many television series starting in the early 1960s, including The Fugitive, L.A. Law and Murder, She Wrote. Most recently, she voiced a character, Mrs. Portillo, on the Disney animated series Handy Manny.
Some of Morrison’s notable movie roles included Fools Rush In with Salma Hayek in 1997, Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand in 1968 and Troop Beverly Hills in 1989 with Shelley Long.
Many fans of Morrison took to Twitter to share their condolences.
Morrison is survived by her husband of more than 40 years.
—With files from The Associated Press