March 25th, 1976
BB SHOT WOUNDS, WHIPLASH, STORMS OF WEEPING, TRAUMAS THAT SHOULDN’T HAPPEN TO A DOG! THEY’RE ALL PART OF THE REAL-LIFE STORY OF
Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe
FOR MOCK CORNBALL SURPRISE
By Ed McCormack
Five nights a week the corny theme music (strains of every soap opera since time immortal) starts in droning and groaning and sturming und dranging and pumping up to the organ-rolling angst ad absurdum. The credits crawl across the most shameless Saturday Evening Post still life you have ever seen...and a voice that evokes memories of a call home to supper oh so many summer dusks ago – a quavering, anxiety-ridden voiced calls, “MARY HARTMAAN, MARY HART-MAANNN!!”...as untold millions stare blankly.
“Let me tell you an amusing little story about blank stares,” says Norman Lear, sitting behind a mile-long desk in his Hollywood Moderne office on Sunset Boulevard.
“Before ‘Mary Hartman’ was aired, when I was just showing it to friends at home to get their reactions, my 16-year-old daughter was hooked.” Lear has now assumed that fond fudgy manner he invariably uses when telling one of his endless family anecdotes. “Well, Maggie was just mad for this boy called Devon...I wonder if I should use his name? Well, why not? – as it turns out it isn’t derogatory toward the boy...Anyway, one day Maggie had him over to watch this show she was so crazy about...Well, the next day my little Maggie comes to me with a pained expression on her face and says, “Daddy, I’m worried about Devon. He doesn’t laugh! He just sits there with this...blank stare on his face!”
Frankly, Lear confides, he was a little worried himself. After all, watching this show can be something like a Rorschach test and – well, if the person watching with you merely stares blankly, nodding in grave agreement, while slapstick, mass murder, venereal disease, and general mayhem appear on the screen – you might just have legitimate cause to worry. But this boy Devon seemed to be a bright enough lad and, being part of that constituency in which Lear professes to have great faith – the beloved American viewing public – he figured Devon would eventually come around.
“So I reminded my daughter Maggie of how many times her mother had had to drag me to the ballet before I actually was able to enjoy the artistry of the thing,” Lear continues. “‘Don’t worry, honey, Devon will come around,’ I assured her. ‘Just watch the show with him a couple of more times and I’ll bet he catches on.’”
To make a Lear story short, the happy “Father Knows Best” outcome is that he was right: not only did Devon come around, now laughing louder and longer than anybody else at “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” but he also does a terrific impersonation of Loretta Haggers singing country & western.
The networks were not as easy to convince. Despite a batting average that includes “All in the Family” (the revolutionary situation comedy that made the “lovable bigot” as classic a character as the “whore with the heart of gold”) and several successful spinoffs (“Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Good Times”), Norman Lear could not convince any of the three major networks that the viewing public was ready for a “slightly bent soap opera.” Essentially what the networks told him was that the American people would not buy a show that didn’t tell them when to laugh. He must, they advised, abandon his idea of doing a “serious parody” and instead provide a live studio response or at least a trickle of canned laughter to tickle the funny bone of the masses. But Norman Lear did an unprecedented thing. He bucked the network system to syndicate his new series to some 90 independent stations coast to coast. And now he is tickled to death that in many cities the show is outrating a competing show that also mixes tragedy with absurdity – the network news!
According to Lear, “Mary Hartman’s” pilot episode pulled a more-than-respectable 25-31% in the Nielsen poll in selected cities across the country (which makes the question of whether America is laughing or merely staring blankly somehow academic). Still, the show has not been without its problems. Although he will not disclose exact sums, Lear says he offered the series at veritable bargain-basement prices – a price no right-thinking local station manager could refuse for a Norman Lear production – in order to assure getting the 50 stations necessary to meet production costs. By the time he was ready to put the special hour-long pilot on the air early this January, Lear had lined up a formidable “antinetwork” of 90 stations. But now he was faced with having to, as he puts it, “turn out quality nighttime TV on a daytime budget.” There was also the problem that in his haste to get the show into production, he had neglected to put together a “bible” – the long synopsis, intricate as a novel, that outlines most television serials several months in advance. The writers would have to wing it.
“Since we started, the poor writers have been so overworked that I told them, ‘Let me take a crack at it over the weekend,’” Lear says. “I intended to just try a couple of outlines, but I got so caught up in it I ended up turning out two whole half-hour scripts.”
There is also a brutal production schedule to contend with, which Lear says is the equivalent of turning out a full half-hour situation comedy five days a week. This hardly leaves the actors time to learn their lines and they refuse to use the standard soap opera cue cards, saying such devices interfere with their emotional authenticity.
Then there is the problem of timing, of getting the show to fit snugly into its half-hour time slot every night (which is why, when the action runs long, there are no coming attractions, and why, when it runs short, the American viewing public has coming attractions coming out of its ears – coming attractions which can seem to comprise half the show and in one recent case skipped a full episode ahead of the upcoming scenes)...But it may be the very roughness of the show, its unpredictability, that accounts for part of its appeal at a time when commercial television usually comes slickly prepackaged.
On the nights that the plot wanders aimlessly or the gallows humor falls flat, it may be because the writers had a bad day. Still, when it works, it has some of the slapdash vividness of real life.
This sense of the unpredictable – of where can it possibly go from here – has made “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” the most talked about new series since the Watergate hearings. Its viewers seem to come in two varieties: those who love it and those who hate it but are hooked anyway – some loving to hate it and others hating to love it.
“What really gratifies me, what really ‘freaks me out,’ as my daughter Maggie might say, about all the feedback we’re getting is that people you might expect to take it seriously are picking up on the subtle parody part, and people you would expect to view it as just a camp thing are actually getting involved,” Lear says.
And to give you an idea of what he means, he tells another family anecdote about this cousin of his who claims to have seen potential mayhem suddenly averted in Bloomingdale’s department store in New York. It seems several fashionable matrons had one besieged saleswoman backed against the flimsy fortress of a lingerie counter, when the quick-thinking clerk called out, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman!”
The ugly confrontation instantly metamorphosed into a friendly discussion about what was going to happen to Mary Hartman next.
The best place to find out is the studios of KTLA-TV, the home of the fictional city of Fernwood, Ohio, in the equally fictional city of Hollywood, California. No other place in this town (apart perhaps from the Hollywood Wax Museum or the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, where the pancake of dowager goddesses from the Silver Screen must be periodically pounded out of the moldering old upholsteries like mummy dust), better suggests the history of Hollywood than KTLA’s bustling back lot. Here the cast and crew of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” race against their hectic daily schedule in one studio while next door Donny and Marie Osmond tape Busby Berkeley spectaculars featuring several high school bands and the entire cast of the Ice Capades.
From the freezing winter of New York a visitor arrives, jet-lagged, during the worst drought in Southern California’s recent history. He is waved past the guard at the Fernwood Gate of KTLA and enters into the Day of the Locust tension-wedded-to-languor of the Reality Warp itself...
"That Donny is such a jerk. Lookit him posing for those teenyboppers with their Brownie cameras. Oh, isn’t that cute: ‘Now let me take one with my friend Penny – oh, thank you Donny, you’re so adorable!’...Attaboy, Donny, put your arm around Penny and say ‘cheese’... "
Debralee Scott, the sassy young actress with the Vampirella overbite who used to play Hotsy Totsy, the high school sexpot of “Welcome Back Kotter,” and is again typecast as Cathy, Mary Hartman’s boy-crazy kid sister, screws up her pug nose in distaste as she sits at an open-air picnic table across from the studio lunch van, sipping diet cola through a straw like some drugstore siren back in her native New Jersey, watching Donny Osmond accommodate his giggling young fans.
“How much you want to bet he’s a virgin? Lookit his snooty tight-assed sister over there. You notice how she never takes her eyes off him? You better believe she’s never been laid, are you kidding? That’s the way those Mormons are. They don’t believe in sex for pleasure – only to make babies. But if you’ve ever noticed, they sure have a hell of a lot of babies...They don’t like to fuck but they sure like to make babies!”
When she is not working or rehearsing, Debralee Scott spends much of her spare time plotting ways to pry Donny Osmond out from under the watchful gaze of his younger sister, Marie.
“You know what I’d like to do with that kid? I’d like to get him drunk and seduce him and show him what the real world is about!”
The real world? In this reality warp? The visitor to the set moves on to meet the star, who is dressed in her Mary Hartman costume. “Nobody in the world really dresses this way,” says Louise Lasser, showing off the spotless apron and the housedress with the puffily “optimistic” sleeves which, combined with her Raggedy Ann bangs and long auburn braids, lend the characterization an almost clownlike poignancy. “But I chose this costume for a kind of Alice in Wonderland effect, which is how I think of Mary, in a way. She’s an innocent. I mean, you’d never see Mary running around the way I do most of the time, in a sweatshirt and an old faded pair of jeans. Mary is still a believer. She was raised to be such a good little girl and to wear pretty dresses and believe in fairy tales...That’s why she can’t really understand why everything is falling apart around her...”
Seeing her in costume, the shock of recognition is such that the visitor must remind himself that Louise Lasser is the daughter of the famous income tax expert S. Jay Lasser; that she grew up privileged and progressively educated in New York; that she studied philosophy at the New School and political science at Brandeis before becoming the star pupil of the esteemed acting coach Sanford Meisner; that she is the former wife of Woody Allen and garnered raves for her performances in her former husband’s Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s highly acclaimed TV drama "The Lie," long before anyone had ever heard of Mary Hartman.
But Louise Lasser will tell you that “Mary is me – I mean, she’s who I would be if I had grown up in a small town and married my high school sweetheart and become a housewife instead of growing up in the big city and becoming an actress and marrying a genius.”
The only difference between herself and her character, the actress says, is that Mary has been conditioned by the “waxy yellow buildup” on her floor and to actually feel inadequate when her husband does not ask for a second cup of a particular brand of coffee.
“It’s like in this scene we taped the other day, when Mae Olinski (the woman Mary’s husband is having an affair with) collapses in Mary’s kitchen from an overdose of sleeping pills. Mary calls the doctor and he tells her he’ll be right over, but in the meantime try to get her to drink some coffee, and Mary says something like, ‘What kind – perk or freeze dried?’...Even in a crisis Mary Hartman is the concerned consumer.”
While on the subject of consuming, the actress says, “Can I get you something to drink, something to eat?”
As the star rummages through a compact refrigerator in her dressing room, she reminds her assistant, a pleasant, dark-haired young woman named Annie McIntyre, to hurry or she’ll be late for her appointment with the chiropractor.
“Remember, Annie, you may have whiplash, so be sure to do whatever the doctor tells you,” she says. “And if you’re not feeling better I do not want you to stay alone – do you hear me, Annie? Promise me you’ll come and stay at my house.”
After she has left, Louise Lasser, returning from the refrigerator, says, “Poor Annie was in a near tragic car accident the other day. Two other people connected with the show also had close calls lately, too...I’m telling you it’s almost getting like a soap opera around here...”
Then after a thoughtful, drifting Mary Hartman moment, the star remembers the visitor and, concerned that he might not be getting his proper nourishment, says, “Eat.”
And the visitor to the set stares blankly at a small, half-chewed chunk of processed cheese and a moisture-beaded supermarket baggie containing what appears to be a few leftover slices of “imitation meat.”...
Inside the studio, Dody Goodman, the original dingbat from the old Jack Paar show, and veteran character actor Phil Bruns, who play George and Martha Shumway, Mary’s mother and father, are on the set of the Shumway kitchen. They are taping a scene in which George is supposed to be giving his “favorite daughter” Cathy a fatherly little lecture, while Martha unpacks groceries. They seem to work together with the grin-and-bear-it animosity of an old married couple.
(To Debralee Scott, who is pouting, back turned, at the sink)
I’m your father, Cathy, and I know what’s good for you, so why don’t you listen to me? What kinda life are you gonna have if you marry this deaf and dumb guy?
Deaf mute Daddy – mute not dumb!
All the same, honey, what kinda life you gonna have with a man who can’t talk, a man who can’t (suddenly throws up his hands and storms off the stage, shouting)...Goddamnit, I’m sorry, but I can’t do this goddamn scene with her making all that racket unpacking the groceries while I’m supposed to be talking to Debralee.
(As George Shumway, a no-nonsense guy who works on the assembly line with his son-in-law in Fernwood, stands on the other side of the set waiting to make his entrance again, he cracks up the cameramen and the grips by rolling his eyes heavenward with the weariness of an old husband and pantomiming the gestures of a man jerking off. As usual, his fictional spouse has the last word.)
(Dizzy Dody/Martha Shumway voice)
Would it make too much noise if I just squeezed the Charmin, George – I mean, er, Phil?
Even Victor Kilian, the elderly character actor who plays Grandpa Larkin – the senior citizen so overlooked he has to court notoriety as the “Fernwood Flasher” – seems to have retired, after roles both humorous and villainous, in over 150 films, to the fictional life of Fernwood.
“How do I like being in this show? Well, I’ll tell you, young man, I hardly seem to be in it anymore,” blusters the old gentleman who has shuffled out of his dressing room in his baggy Emmett Kelly pants with a mixture of indignation and resignation remarkably like that of Grandpa Larkin. “In the beginning, at least, they wrote lines for me, but nowadays they seem to have forgotten I’m around...”
Grandpa Larkin is not the only cast member who feels somewhat overshadowed...Greg Mullavey, the son of a former Brooklyn Dodgers coach, plays Tom Hartman, Mary’s all-American assembly line worker ex-jock husband. He became an actor when an injury ended his career in pro baseball (“It’s not for nothing that he wears that corny red baseball cap and that old Fernwood High Varsity jacket,” says Louise Lasser, who says she agrees with Truman Capote that most actors are, by and large, pretty dumb). Mullavey – whose standard greeting to the visitor on the set is a hearty “Hang in there, kid” and a playful cuff to the arm, says he wants to be able to play this guy Tom Hartman “almost by osmosis,” wants to be able to slip into his skin the minute he slips into his jacket and cap, wants to play him from the inside out...react rather than act.
Although he will admit that he has had “a few hassles” with Louise Lasser (and once really blew up at her on the set), Mullavey, who meditates to transcend a “naturally volatile” personality, says that he “really loves Louise.”
“I mean, we haven’t slept together or anything,” the actor wishes to make immediately clear, “but I really love her and I’m really pretty happy with this gig. The only thing I would like to see is for the rest of us to get some credit. I mean it’s not an ego trip, but in order to get good parts, in order to get on the Carson show and things like that, people have to know your name, right? So I have to admit, it does bug me a little bit when I finally get my picture in Time magazine – picture in Time, dream of a lifetime, right? – and a friend clips it out and sends it to me with a note that says, ‘Who’s the unidentified man with Louise Lasser?’ But that’s being talked about, man. I think that’s gonna change pretty soon...”
If certain cast members feel overshadowed, the writers sometimes feel nonexistent, according to Ann Marcus, the handsome silver-haired woman who heads the three-member team of veteran soap opera scripters along with Jerry Adelman and Daniel Gregory Browne.
“It really burns me up when people think that the actors are improvising,” Ann Marcus says.“I mean, it may look that way sometimes. Since we’re rarely more than a few scripts ahead of the one being taped, I have to admit there are times when we don’t know exactly where we’re going. Not to take anything away from the actors, either…This cast is certainly capable of adlibbing if anyone is – and they are allowed a certain amount of leeway because of the difficulty of learning lines so fast...But you’ve seen some of our scripts...I’ll have you know this show is written, damnit!”
Jerry Adelman, a bearish, gray-bearded man who affects the yachting cap and Mighty Mac windbreaker of a seafaring type, chucklingly comments that in the first few episodes the writers have taken on impotence, exhibitionism, mass murder, medical malpractice, and organized religion, but the thing that makes the sponsors uptight – the most controversial aspect of the series by far – is that ti bites the hand that feeds it.
The sets themselves are crammed with all the useless gadgets and blatant brand names that the anal-retentive consumer culture can produce. In Mary’s kitchen, every last dish towel and leftover crumb of sponge cake is arranged just so, with even the “waxy yellow buildup” present and accounted for by the propmen. (Occasionally the visitor, wandering amidst the sets, would help himself to a Schlitz from Mary Hartman’s refrigerator, walk across the studio, and settle down in Loretta and Charlie Haggers’ living room. From here he could gaze out over the darkened sets, over the artifacts of Sears Roebuck abundance, over every aspect of the American home lovingly reproduced down to the last vulgar detail. Here it was possible to fluctuate between the bemused exaltation and the acute depression of a future archeologist stumbling upon an uninspired period of better-forgotten history.)
Adelman contends that this environment, which makes light of consumer credulity, is an essential part of Mary Hartman’s characterization. “That’s how I see Mary. Like millions of others she’s a casualty, floating in an almost Kafka-esque sea of consumer indirection...”
“That’s pure bullshit, Jerry, that’s not Mary at all,” protests Ann Marcus, dismissing Adelman’s assessment as sexist with a wave of the hand.
“Mary may be naive, but she’s not a victim, she’s not a casualty...She’s a real survivor if I ever saw one. Mary can cope. Mary Hartman is actually one helluva strong woman.”
The writers excuse themselves to meet a sex therapist. They’re sorry they can’t take the visitor along, but it might make the therapist self-conscious. Are they having a problem? Ann Marcus says, “No, but we think Mary may have one coming up and we want to be prepared – just in case.”
More problems for Mary Hartman? Where will it ever end?...
Meanwhile, back in Mary’s kitchen, another domestic hassle is underway:
How come all you’re talking about is the fuel pump?
You can worry about two things at once, but you can only talk about one thing at a time...Don’t ask stupid questions.
You know something I’ve noticed?
We’re fighting with each other worse than before we separated. That’s not a good sign, Tom.
“That’s gorgeous, Louise. I love that look on your face,” says Joan Darling, the wiry, dark-haired veteran who rotates directing the show with a man named Jim Drake. “Just hold that look for a close-up, Louise...you’re perfect, Greg...Remember, though, you’re impatient with her – still got that fuel pump on your mind.”
As she makes quick notations in the margin of a script and tries to wolf down a takeout taco between takes, Joan Darling is telling the visitor to the set that this cast is “an absolute dream” to work with.
“No, I didn’t say the most exciting thing in my career – I said the most exciting thing in my life,” she corrects – the distinction being significant when you consider that Joan Darling is also a highly respected actress, an esteemed drama coach, and the former director of the famous improvisation troupe called “The Premise.”
“These actors were all handpicked for their ability to work well under pressure, and everyone involved actually takes a proprietary interest in the show. In fact, a friend of mine, who happens to be a very good psychologist, recently pointed out that what makes the show so much fun to watch, what comes across, is the feeling that the people doing it seem to love it so much and to be having so much fun.”
Darling does not exactly share the writers’ enthusiasm for soaps. (Marcus has even quibbled with the idea that this is a parody of the soap opera genre – preferring to see it as a “parody of how the media presents the American people to themselves.”) In fact, Darling never thought she would find herself directing a soap opera, until Norman Lear twisted her arm.
“Originally I approached Norman with the idea of doing a documentary, a biography of Golda Meir with me playing the lead. But Norman can be very persuasive.”
Watching her direct the next scene, you know that Joan Darling would have made a boffo prime minister of Israel. Working with Louise Lasser and 12-year-old Claudia Lamb, who plays Mary’s sulky daughter Heather, she alternately cajoles, chides, and “chicken soups” the child and the sometimes childish star, coaxing them through a scene so effortlessly that Jim Drake was moved more by admiration than professional jealousy to remark, “Well, it looks like one-take Darling is back in the booth.”
When the cumbersome heads of the cameras are finally lowered to graze along the cable-cluttered floor (the monitors now showing random corners of the studio like the static experiments of some avant-garde video artist’s documentary called “The Life and Times of Mary Hartman’s Trash Can”)...Joan Darling sits back in her director’s chair and grins as though she has just wiped out half the Arab air force.
“The only drawback about directing a soap opera,” she says, “is that it never climaxes, so it’s sort of like screwing forever and never being able to come.”
Jim Drake, the younger director, who is a bit more diffident and less commanding, may be slightly less euphoric as well...Toward the end of the week, after a difficult scene for which Louise Lasser seems to have little enthusiasm, he requests a retake for technical reasons and the star flatly refuses.
“You can accept bad acting from me so why can’t I accept bad directing from you?” she argues with a logic that is pure Mary Hartman, backed by a temperament that is strictly Louise Lasser.
But, as she watches the playback on a monitor, the star suddenly says, “Jesus Christ, who the hell shot this thing? This is just the pits!”
Later, Louise Lasser is sulking in her dressing room when the actress who plays Grandpa Larkin’s court-assigned social-worker-turned-fiancée stops by to compliment her on a scene they did earlier in the day:
“You were terrific, Louise, and I liked myself too, for a change.”
“I thought you were bad,” says Louise.
The other actress looks stricken, swallows several times, seemingly trying to regain the power of speech.
“I mean, I think you were good, but you’re usually better,” Louise self-corrects in her unique that’s-what-I-said-but-that’s-not-what-I-meant manner, before adding, “I think I was worse...It was just a bad scene altogether.”
On Friday, the tension which has been slowly building all week finally erupts into open conflict. Louise and Debralee Scott are rehearsing a scene in which Cathy Shumway shows Mary by a sly gesture the length of her deaf mute boyfriend’s penis. When Louise Lasser insists that Mary Hartman would push her kid sister’s hands down, not allowing her to complete the vulgar gesture, Debralee, who seems to think that the star is trying to steal a laugh (or a blank stare), blows up.
Why, Louise...why do you always have to be right about everything all the time? Why do you always have to be...better?
(Soft as Mary Hartman, but with a hard edge which is pure Louise Lasser)
Because I am...I am better!
Debralee Scott storms off the set and weeps inconsolably for the next half-hour, as Louise Lasser, who seems to be suffering minor pangs of guilt, tries to justify her bluntness by saying that it takes a long time – you have to be hurt a lot yourself – before you become tough enough to be so hurtingly honest...
But the run-in with Debralee (which has the cameramen, gofers, and grips still shaking their heads hours later) is just the beginning of a very eventful, very difficult day which will climax with a surprise appearance by Norman Lear…as well as some very ominous news from Norman’s money men...
“Working this show is like the early days of live television,” Jim Baldwin, the senior member of the camera team, is explaining between sips of scalding coffee late in the afternoon, as the cast and crew take five. “Compared to everything else you see on TV, it may seem new but actually, it’s the way we used to do it in the old days when you didn’t have time to set things up and you have to go in and shoot raw...So if the boom happened to get into the shot or you saw a grip scampering across the set – well, the hell with it, watcha saw was watcha got...When TV took over from the movies out here a lot of movie people got on the bandwagon and got into the business, but they weren’t thinking television, they were thinking movies – which is an altogether different medium...But that’s why most of the shows you see are so lifeless and slick: it’s that movie mentality, in which you go for a kind of perfection but lose the immediacy that made live television so exciting. We used to call it shooting raw or shooting crude, but it’s not really crude, it’s just more naturalistic...and I’m damned glad to be working that way again. It makes it a pleasure to come to work in the morning.”
Suddenly Jim Baldwin spots a familiar face and gets up out of his chair so abruptly that he almost spills his styrofoam cup of coffee.
“Holy shit, it’s Norman! What the hell is Norman doing here? He hasn’t set foot on the set since we started taping this show.”
“He must have realized he has another hit show on the air and decided to come pay his respects,” another cameraman says.
“Something’s up,” Baldwin insists.
Lear’s first appearance on the set seems lit by the glow of occasion. He bursts into the studio, glad-handling stagehands and grips along the way, and makes a beeline for the heart of the action – Mary’s kitchen. There he embraces first the star and then Greg Mullavey, who stands next in line for the ritual showbiz love-ya-madly kissy-kissy, while the rest of the cast and crew gather round and Lear tells them, “I’m as hooked as the rest of America! You’re all doing such a terrific job.”
“I still say something’s up,” says Baldwin, watching from the sidelines. “Norman didn’t show up here just to tell us we’re doing a terrific job.”
As it turns out, he is right. After the day’s taping is completed there is a meeting of cast and crew with Norman Lear’s money men, who announce that despite the success of the show, they are still way over budget and have to cut back drastically. This means that the already impossible production schedule will become even more hectic come Monday...Another thing that Norman neglected to tell everyone when he showed up earlier on the set was that two production assistants would have to be fired. This more than anything upsets Jim Drake.
“Those were valuable people who saved us many times their salaries in production costs every week they were here,” Drake says, just after conferring privately with a very distraught looking Louise Lasser. “To me it seems penny-wise and dollar-foolish, like what they used to refer to as Black Thursday at CBS – when some executive would get the bright idea of cutting corners by laying off half the mailroom and the next morning everybody would be wondering why they weren’t getting any mail.”
Late into the evening, a morose Debralee Scott drowns her sorrows in the beery blue of a local actors’ hangout called Joe Allen’s. As Rob Reiner, who plays “The Meathead” on “All in the Family,” stops by the table to offer his condolences, a production assistant named Susan Harris is telling the visitor from New York that while she is happy to have survived the purge, she is not looking forward to going back to work on Monday morning.
With the tension building and the plot thickening, the reporter is waiting out the weekend like one long station break. Somewhere around 11 o’clock the following night, he is cracking cans of beer to stave off the drought and taking alternate hits on a joint and a Primatene asthma inhaler to combat the famous smog, when the telephone suddenly rings in room 1205 of the Holiday Inn in North Hollywood.
“Hi, it’s me – Louise,” says a voice that needs (as they say in showbiz) no introduction. “I hope I didn’t wake you . . . I just called because I thought we should get together tomorrow night...Alone, I mean. I’ve never done that before without any press agents around, but I think I know the kind of story you’re after, and we could just hang out for a while and talk, okay?”
The next night, the visitor hands a cab driver a very intricate set of directions dictated over the phone by Louise Lasser and tells him he’s on his own. The cab winds up into the hills, up steep Sleepy Hollow roads with the lights of Tinsel Town spilling down into the canyon below. At the door of a woodsy modern ranch house, Louise Lasser greets him. Inside, a fire is blazing cozily despite the humidity and the drought. Everything is going swell – a very intime Rex Reed pour-your-heart-out Hollywood interview scene with the scruffy, bearded journalist sitting on the sofa in a posture reminiscent of Sigmund Freud and the actress all balled up like an animated bundle of “Method” angst, analyzing her character...until this problem occurs with one of the dogs.
The writers of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” might transcribe the real life episode as follows:
(SCENE – LOUISE LASSER’S KITCHEN – EVENING)
(Water whooshing and splashing every which way as Louise struggles with a sodden yelping Scotty in the kitchen sink, trying both to calm and upend the animal at the same time. As the dog panics and Louise struggles, the scruffy visitor looks on dumbfounded.)
This is terrible…This poor little dog is all blocked up...Yeccchhh, I hate shit – I mean I hate smells – any smells! Yeccchhh, how disgusting! I think I’m going to...throw up...
(Bumbling, trying to be helpful) Can I...do anything? Get you some toilet paper or something?
(Still struggling, distressed) This poor dog has had so many traumatic experiences lately. First his two best friends passed away within days of each other and...now this!...Oh, yes, help...paper towels...over there...by the counter...My friend thought he should stay here with my dog until he got over the death of the other two dogs, but that was a really stupid idea because this dog and my Kefir don’t even know each other...They haven’t said two words, I mean woofs, to each other since he’s been here...Oh, thank you for the towel...You’re very kind, but it’s too bad you don’t like animals because this is disgusting. Yeccchhh!
Allergies. Can’t stand physical contact or get too close to them...But that’s really amazing – blocked up dog! Never even heard of it before...is that an unusual condition?
(On verge of passing out from stench) Yes. I mean, no. Only among long-haired breeds – when they have long hair around their ass and they shit, you know, they get blocked up sometimes, in back...
(Moved to unaccustomed candor by the situation) That’s really funny, you know, because before – remember when we were sitting over by the fireplace and every once in a while you’d kind of glance over at the dog? Well, I kept thinking, “Aha, she’s farting and trying to blame it on the dog!”
(Louise, unamused, forgets animal. Turns, stung by the suggestion.)
Oh, no...Why would I do that? I mean, it isn’t even my dog to blame.
(Reporter stares back blankly...seems to be some sort of reality warp here...everything is getting blurry...)
Long after the crisis of the canine blockage has seemingly been resolved, the actress keeps sniffing at her fingertips to make certain no lingering stigma of the stench remains. As she speaks wistfully of her three years as the wife of Woody Allen, Louise steps out of her Mary Hartman suit and stands naked. Mary Hartman, both victim and survivor, would be able to sympathize, even if she couldn’t articulate it as well as Louse Lasser does:
“Before I met Woody, I always felt like Marilyn Monroe, like girls were supposed to be stupid or something...like it was somehow unfeminine or something to be smart. So I tried to play dumb until I believed it myself...But it’s a funny thing: the smart boys always liked me... Maybe it was because they were smart enough to see through my whole dumb act, I mean, can a woman who married Woody Allen really be dumb? That’s not dumb – that’s smart, right?”
She met Woody Allen in 1966, at a party at which, she says, they fell instantly in love because they were the only people in the room who realized what a “fantastic existential act it was” for Norman Mailer to stab his wife while running for mayor of New York. She remembers their four years together as idyllic. They lived in a brownstone in New York and spent wild Woody Allen weekends skulking down corridors in the Museum of Modern Art in trench coats like characters in some French existentialist film – like spies!
“We lived this fantasy of being like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. My husband was always saying to me, ‘Louise, we’re going to be one of the great couples.’...But it turned out that only after we separated was it possible for us to work together...Then we could get down to business...”
She changes the subject abruptly back to Mary Hartman.
“What do you think should happen to Mary Hartman next? I have this great idea – but I’m not sure I should let it out...You know, though, it’s a funny thing: it was only recently that I really realized that Mary Hartman is in terrible, terrible trouble...I only realized it this week, in fact, when things started to pile up and really get shitty...”
Even before the scene with the dog this had been an exceptionally shitty week. If that fight with Debralee had only been the worst of it! At the closed door meeting with Norman’s money men, Louise Lasser claims that certain other members of the cast (she can only console herself that they were not the people she calls “the good ones”) personally attacked her! They ganged up on her, the gist of their complaint being that the show was not “Louise Lasser, Louise Lasser” and it made her feel so shitty that she is dreading going back to work Monday...
“It all had to happen just when I was beginning to feel good about the show...I mean, I went through some terrible times in the beginning, when I first agreed to do it. I got very frightened that I might just be ending my career. Just think about it for a second...Would you hire the former Mary Hartman? I know I wouldn’t...”
Louise says she felt so insecure for a while there that Norman, who is very paternal about his properties, was worried that she might crack under the pressure.
“Things were getting back to him and...I think he was actually convinced that I was going to crack up and he would be left with an insane basket-case of an actress on his hands...
“But now, it’s not even me I’m worried about...because it only dawned on me that Mary is in terrible trouble even for the heroine of a soap opera – even a slightly bent soap opera! And I just this weekend figured out the possible solution...I can’t wait to talk to the writers about it...but maybe I shouldn’t tell you. What do you think? Should I or not? No, I shouldn’t...but I want to, so I will. This is it: I think Mary should have a nervous breakdown and be put in a mental institution...Well, what do you think? Tell me the truth: don’t you think that’s really an incredibly good idea...?”
Monday morning, even “one-take Darling” was not absolutely certain she could hack it, but now it is Monday afternoon and she isn’t worried anymore. The new schedule, which requires getting the rehearsing and taping over with by a reasonable time every night (five or six instead of seven or eight or nine, or even later sometimes) is tough, but Joan brought in the first scene today in record time and form that moment on, she says, she knew it was going to work out okay.
“Life imitates fiction,” says the director, handing the visitor to the set a fan letter from a real-life Mary Hartman who writes to disagree with those critics who claim the show is just too absurd to be a slice of real life.
“...I run my household of five kids, one Saint Bernard, two cats, and six imported goldfish with a lot of humor,” writes this “typical American housewife” (who would like to know if the writers welcome “real slices of life” from viewers). “If not, I would have to take seriously my kids’ regular runaway attempts, the kidnapping of my 14-year-old daughter by her 34-year-old lover (who just happened to be her girlfriend’s father), learning of my 34-year-old grandmother-hood and my attempted suicide (around the same time) and that would have destroyed me! Our tragedies can be funny if we let them. It’s the only way to survive...”
Minutes later, Viva Knight, Norman Lear’s producer, bursts in, visibly shaken. She has just received news that her 12-year-old son has been taken to the hospital with a hole in his arm. He was on his way home from school when a grown man fired a BB gun at him from a passing car.
“I mean, isn’t that just incredible? What kind of maniac would want to harm an innocent little boy?”
Meanwhile, a long-haired prop man is running around the studio with an empty holster flapping off his belt. It seems the real .32-caliber gun that was used in the scene in which Mary Hartman meets the mass killer is missing.
“Somebody ripped off the gun,” he says, rushing by in a blur. “Somebody had better notify the police!”
“I swear,” says Viva Knight, “this is a world gone absolutely mad.”