Shelley Morrison, best known for playing Rosario Salazar in the hit TV sitcom Will & Grace, has died aged 83.

Her character in the beloved series, a maid from El Salvador, was only meant to appear once, but proved so popular that Morrison went on to star in 68 episodes during the original run of the series from 1999 to 2006.

Morrison, part of the cast that won Screen Actors’ Guild and Emmy awards for comedy, said she wanted to “change heart and minds” through her work.

Debra Messing, who played Grace in the 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.”

Eric McCormack, who starred as Will in the NBC show, said Morrison was a “beautiful soul” whose work as Rosario was “as nuanced and real as it was hysterical”.

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Megan Mullally, who played Rosario’s boss Karen Walker, tweeted: “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.”

Born Rachel Mitrani in the Bronx, New York, in 1936, Morrison was often cast as Latina characters, but she played a range of different ethnicities in theatre, television and film in a career that spanned 50 years.

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She played Sister Sixto in The Flying Nun alongside Sally Field from 1967 to 1970, and guest starred in dozens of TV series starting in the early 1960s, including The Fugitive, LA Law and Murder, She Wrote.

But Rosario was her best-known role, and one of her favourite characters to play.

According to a statement released following her death, Morrison had recently said: “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.”

Shelley Morrison was best known for playing maid Rosario on Will & Grace
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Morrison’s career in entertainment spanned 50 years

Morrison’s husband of more than 40 years, Walter Dominguez, said that besides the opportunity to play a strong Latina woman in Will & Grace, the actress valued the show for its breakthrough TV depiction of gay characters.

He said: “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.

“She believed that the best way to change hearts and minds was through comedy.”

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Morrison also appeared with Dean Martin in 1968’s How To Save A Marriage and Ruin Your Life, with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl the same year, with Gregory Peck in 1969’s Mackenna’s Gold, with Shelley Long in Troop Beverly Hills in 1989, and Salma Hayek in 1997’s Fools Rush In.

Most recently, she voiced Mrs Portillo in the Disney animated series Handy Manny.

Her publicist confirmed she died from heart failure following a short illness.