June, 1976


Photoplay Magazine


Remember when Leroy, the football coach, drowned in the chicken soup Mary Hartman lovingly brought him? Remember the beautiful wake in Mary’s kitchen where Loretta sang Leroy’s favorite song, “That Old Black Magic”?... Remember the mortician who tried to sell Leroy’s widow an exorbitantly expensive funeral?... Well, that mortician was played by David Rounds who just happens to be the author of our story…


A Day on the Set of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”


How many think “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” comes from New York, New York? Raise your hands. Wrong! But you’d think so, wouldn’t you? Daring, sassy, irreverent, funny—New York. Would you believe Sunset Boulevard of KTLA-TV in a studio wedged between “On the Rocks” and “Donny and Marie”? Here this wacky concoctions whipped up daily—a new taste treat gobbled by many, while considered not for human consumption by others.


Me, I’m an actor. I had skied in from the East Coast when “Beacon Hill,” on which I played Terence O’Hara, the underbutler, slid into the sea. So I went where the work is. West, young man. And it now seemed appropriate that I was reporting to KTLA, Studio 5, to play a mortician on “Mary Hartman.” Still in mourning for “Beacon Hill,” I didn’t even have to change my face.


As loyal “Mary Hartman” fans surely know by now, the mortician I played was called in after Leroy, the football coach, died by drowning in a bowl of Mary’s lovingly prepared chicken soup. This was quite a sad occurrence for Mary—to be sure—but, then melodrama is what makes a soap opera go round.


Soap opera? The ultimate soap opera some say. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” has all the ingredients of the classic formula, plus a comic element that not only makes the serious scenes funnier than the obviously comic scenes, but makes the real old-fashioned soaps seem comic, too. But “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is not just a “comic soap opera.” There is a whole new whole when you add up the parts. Who can look at a soap opera (the other ones) with the same straight face again? Who can look at life with the same straight face?


The cast gathers at five each afternoon to read over the script for the next day’s taping. When I inquired about the location of the rehearsal room, the guard waved me vaguely in the direction of the other side of the studio. There, around a table, the cast gradually, wearifully was assembling. I greeted the few New York faces I knew—Salome Jens, Graham Jarvis, Reva Rose, Phil Bruns. The others I recognized from watching. But no one made introductions. Wanting desperately to belong, I fetched a chair, finally, from across the studio and sat at the periphery pretending that I did.


I guess I passed. No one seemed to notice me. “Psst, shouldn’t I have a script?” I asked a lady with a stop-watch and pencil. The other actors proceeded apace, talking their scenes, making word changes as they went.


Then I saw the star herself—Louise Lasser. I knew that was her real hair—no one could have made up those anachronistic braids. She didn’t look up, didn’t even offer a cup of coffee. Was this the “Mary Hartman” I knew and loved?


Calls were made for the next morning—8:00 or 8:30. The cast rose to drag themselves home for line learning.


“Excuse me,” I announced, “but I think I was supposed to be here today. I’m the mortician.” Heads turned and stared.


Louise Lasser broke the silence: “Oh no, I can’t do that scene now. Don’t worry,” she glanced over at me, “you’ll know your lines.” And she left.


It seems she has a good deal of say-so with the script. Oliver Hailey’s final script isn’t final until Miss Lasser does her own editing, and she hadn’t had time for that scene yet.


How can I describe my anxiety? A standard joke in the biz is the one about the civilian who asks how you remember all those words. Any actor knows that this is the least difficult ingredient of good acting. That’s the joke, see? But it ain’t no joke! A plumber who is unemployed is an unemployed plumber; an actor who is unemployed is just unemployed. Confidence wanes quickly and one is no longer sure that he can act when he not doing it—but two thirds of acting is confidence. It’s a terrible paradox.


The morning rehearsal proceeded with a strange event. Disbelieving cries of “fire, fire” announced that the bowl-shaped reddish wig, the one with the bangs and thick braids—in short, “Mary Hartman” herself—was burning up under the hairdryer! The fire was quickly extinguished and a substitute wig was fetched.


Rehearsal continued. Scenes were blocked on the sets. {“Blocking” refers to the practice of showing the actors exactly where to stand on the set and telling them precisely what to do.} This was a rare and valuable advantage compared to the soaps I had done before.


Jim Drake, the director, was young, charming, efficient. But the cast seemed tired even though it was early in the week; 30 minutes of being funny for five days a week is hard. Reva Rose had 25 pages of dialogue this day. Louise, ditto. They were worried about their lines. This did not make the visiting player with six pages and one scene feel any more secure.


My scene was blocked quickly and rather by committee, with much “and then I’ll do this” and “then you do that” and “when I say that line, you sit.” I said nothing—I was the new boy.


The temptation was to act funny. You say to yourself, “I have to be funny because this is a funny show.” This, however, is the trap. So my better sense was saying, “Down, boy, down,” as I stood behind the door, heard the bing-bong doorbell from the sound man, and knew that Reva Rose was about to open the door—and there, in the living room, would be this grey monster with the little red light on top (the camera), looking at me and waiting for me to speak. She did—and there is was. I felt shot from a cannon! I spoke.


And it was done. No out-of-town tryout. No preview audiences to tell you how you’re doing. Just a piece of tape—irretrievable.


Louise Lasser was a joy to work with. I mean, she’s just there, and when she looks at you, she looks at you. You better be there, too. I sure do admire that lady. But, see, I never did meet her or shake hands, or anything like that. She was too busy and I was too shy. Or maybe she doesn’t like morticians.


I was to appear in the funeral service scene a couple of days later, and I showed up at five the night before for rehearsal. Louise was off doing a talk show, so Greg Mullavey (who plays Tom Hartman) read her part. They have to get a timing of the script, you see, so he volunteered. We had a few good laughs. The personal pressure was off that next day. The first day is always the hardest—and, anyway, I had only two lines.


The funeral was to take place in “Mary’s” house. Reva Rose’s living room had been redone to serve as the “Hartman” living room—for economical reasons. I trust. Same neighborhood, same tract house, same floor plan, same room—now cunningly redecorated. Too cunningly, thought Louise Lasser: “This won’t do. We can’t shoot this scene today.”


There was consternation all around. Producers, heretofore invisible, materialized. Louise complained that the room was in bad taste all right, but not in “Mary’s” taste. She felt the room should “float” and everyone seemed to go along with that.


She was right, of course. The problem was temporarily solved by shifting the funeral to the kitchen set—a startling pragmatic decision, but ingeniously funny.


I was told that at no time during the first 40 tapings had the cast and the on-lookers had so much trouble retaining their composure, refraining from laughing. The scene was that funny—a funeral service in a kitchen with waxy, yellow build-up.


Jim Drake said, “Let’s try it,” the floor manager gave the countdown, and, oh wonder, everyone got through the first time without breaking up. Relief and congratulations went all around!


“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” has been plagued with growing pains, budget problems, the difficulty of obtaining and retaining a consistency of style and a high level of performance, satisfying the endless demand for fresh and funny scripts. Satire is, perhaps, the most delicate and difficult dramatic form. But if originality counts, I’d give “Mary Hartman” an A…


Oh, by the way: I’d love to meet Louise Lasser someday!

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