Harry F. Waters with Martin Kasindorf
Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers, confesses she “wasn’t aware of how boring the show was getting.” But Louise Lasser, star of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” became so depressed over the scripts that she stopped eating for days. “When you take the show’s feeling away, it’s sitting on nothing,” says Lasser. “We have to go back and look for our feelings.” Producer Norman Lear sensed that something was amiss when friends stopped calling to congratulate him for the series’ hilarious moments. “My God, we’ve become profound,” Lear recently announced to his co-workers. “We have to bring back Fernwood.”
Improbable as it may seems, TV’s most acclaimed soaper is undergoing a severe identity crisis in its second season. Although 102 stations still carry “Mary Hartman” – and there have been no cancellations – half a dozen big-city outlets complained when the soap spoof’s ratings started to slip noticeably. Letter-writers and critics contend that the story lines have turned repetitious, its execution artificial, and its acting woefully listless. The upshot is that Lear, who became something of an absentee landlord once the series clicked, has admitted its recent shortcomings – and he is personally supervising an emergency resuscitation. “I decided I loved the show so much,” explains Lear, “that I had to jump back into it with both feet.”
Basically, the folks who put together “MH2" grew so enraptured with the show’s critical panegyrics that they forgot what made it so successful. As Mary left her kitchen for a mental ward, the scripts labored to make meaningful social commentary on public institutions and the characters abruptly took on puzzling new personae. Gone was husband Tom’s baseball cap and jacket. Now he was in junior-executive suits, his factory job upgraded to selling recreational vehicles. Mary’s father disappeared into a spooky, outer-space cult, senile Grandpa Larkin suddenly began analyzing Picasso, and the show’s only together-couple, the sexually hyperactive Haggers, split up over a problem that had already bedeviled Tom last year – impotence. Visiting celebrities like Gore Vidal and Merv Griffin seemed as out of place as Mary’s new braidless coiffure. “We left the land of emotions and went into idea-land,” observes Lasser. “The show’s bent, warped, fingerprinted quality vanished. It got sanded down.”
Nervous: Lear was so concerned about Lasser’s sudden 9-pound weight loss that he hustled the high-strung actress into a San Diego medical center for three days of intensive tests. In light of her highly publicized cocaine bust last spring, suspicions of drug debilitations circulated among the show’s staff. The tests, however, laid those rumors to rest, and the doctors attributed the actress’s loss of appetite to nervous anxiety. “Everyone always thinks I’m on drugs,” shrugs Louise. “I don’t have the time.”
Meanwhile, a new writing team was brought aboard to try to restore “MH2's” blue-collar lunacy. In upcoming episodes, a recession will hit Fernwood, driving Tom out of his sales job and back into baseball garb. Charlie Haggers will regain his virility with Loretta, who will later suffer amnesia and turn up as a waitress-torch-singer whose specialty is “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Fernwood will be visited by a sex researcher passing out questionnaires probing the female residents’ unfulfilled desires. A plane will even fly over town to skywrite the study’s theme: “Foreplay is Fair Play.”
Whether “Mary Hartman” will return for a third season is very much in the air. The series, which lost $1.3 million in its first year, is still running in the red and Lasser declines to promise that she will put up with the production grind much longer. In any case, contrary Mary seems to be back in her kitchen, and in character as well. During last week’s taping, Mary, once again coiffed in Raggedy-Ann braids, submitted her kitchen table to a vigorous polishing – on the underside of the table.