Joan Darling, director of the series, is just as
amazing-and funny as the show…
“I’ve always found life to be
By Rebecca Thomas
“I thought the show was a satire on the media, not on soap operas, but on how the media present America to Americans. I felt it reflected the growing feeling that, whatever they promised you isn’t true: the situation we have where people are saying, ‘I did everything you told me to do, and I’m not living happily ever after.’”
The topic: “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a show which, as most Americans already know, is the most discussed, most written about, most loved-and most reviled-new television series of 1976. To put it briefly.
The speaker: Joan Darling, director of the series for twenty-two episodes in the mind-boggling space of five weeks’ time. She’s petite, with short dark hair. Joan, athletically girlish, a pixie with the laugh lines of a past-thirty lady, gleefully admits that she’s “always found life to be hilarious.” Joan Darling is best known, perhaps, as the actress who played Arthur Hill’s secretary, Frieda, on the “Owen Marshall” series. An actress is what she always wanted to be, and it was as an actress that she became known to television’s King Lear-Norman-the man who brought bigotry out of the closet and made it funny with “All in the Family,” the man who lives to take chances in television, and the man who is responsible for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Joan wanted an acting job playing Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, and she wanted Norman Lear to produce it.
“While I was there, he asked me if I wanted to direct. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Well, a couple of months later, he sent me a couple of scripts—“Mary Hartman, episode number one, and “Mary Hartman,” episode two. I read them and I thought, ‘I don’t know what these are. They’re not really comedies; the bedroom scenes are the most truthful and the most painful I’ve ever seen. The comedy is stupid, dumb, silly, wonderful, funny.’”
Like millions of other now-devoted “MH2” fans, Joan’s initial confusion disappeared in time.
“There was something in it that smelled good to me,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I feel like this, if I haven’t seen it before, maybe it’s something nobody’s ever seen before; maybe it is something by itself.’ It almost became a task, to sit down and say, ‘Well, since I can’t fit it into any notch, let me make up a notch for it.’ And I made up that notch—that it was a satire on the media—and once I made up that notch, then we collectively pushed it into that notch.
“And Norman was wonderful. He knows talent, and he respects it. He really let Louise (series star Louise Lasser) and I shape the show; he waited until he saw it done our way, and then we would discuss it—which was fabulous. I thought that’s the way a director did it. I now know that was naïve, but I just did the job the way I thought it was supposed to be done.”
Joan says, “I laugh myself silly when I hear these guys tell whoever’s around that this is the most difficult job in the world and that nobody else can do it. Those familiar with what television directing is like will tell you about the only thing comparable to directing three television cameras at once, and editing the thing almost as you go, is being an air-traffic controller at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the world’s busiest.”
She went in to direct her very first such television show with, for all intents and purposes, no previous experience, and she was, “scared to death.”
“The eye-hand coordination is staggering,” she allows, “so I sat myself down over the weekend, with three children’s blocks, moving them around, drawing pictures of the action I’d staged. I was very lucky in that I had a tremendous memory. I learned to do it in essentially six days, five of them directing “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Joan’s memory, excellent as it surely is, must pale in comparison to her coordination, all-important in television directing. Essentially, a director watches several different pictures, and the director must push buttons and verbally order instructions at the same time he’s monitoring the television pictures, thereby choosing which picture will be used for the broadcast. And that’s where Joan Darling’s childhood comes in.
“We were the only poor Jews in Brookline, Massachusetts,” says Joan with a laugh, obviously attempting to lighten the next words in her brief autobiography. Her father, an attorney, died when she was seven, “a trauma which I’m still attempting to recover from,” she says.
“But I now realize that one of the best things that happened to me was that my father died, because it destroyed the family. My mother went to bed for six years, except when she went out to try to earn a living. We were really left on our own. A lot of the reinforcement toward being a wife and mother was dropped at seven. I don’t want children. I was sort of stuck with raising my younger sister, and that was enough for me. I was isolated. I had two brothers who hated me, and were always beating me up, and with whom I was always competing. I tried to physically keep up with my brothers—bicycles, football, everything. Now, as a result, my eye-hand coordination is so good that directing television is relatively easy for me.”
When she was three, however, she also went to see a Humphrey Bogart movie and decided to become an actress. That has remained with her, too.
“Acting still holds a lot of magic for me. When you’re acting, you get to be one of the kids, not the mommy. They bring you coffee, they put makeup on your face, and then you get to sit around and read and nobody bothers you. It’s a great life.
“When I was a kid, I thought that being an actress, a movie star, meant that you got to be a doctor for two hours, you got to be a lawyer, you got to be a sexy lady. You didn’t have to choose. It seemed to me that there were so many things out there, I couldn’t choose any one of them. And that’s why all I ever wanted to do was be an actress, even after I found out that you only pretended to be all those things.”
That desire to “be all those things” is really the reason Joan Darling is now a director, and one of television’s few female directors at that. Her personal life, as much as her professional life, is keyed to that desire to experience as much as possible in life.
Currently married to TV movie writer Bill Svano, and briefly married while a student at Carnegie Tech, Joan gets her last name from hubby number two, folk singer Eric Darling.
“It didn’t work out as a marriage, but it’s a great friendship. He gave the name Darling to me. He said I brought honor to it. And it’s a great name because when people say Joan Darling, their association with the word “darling” is so friendly that I’m getting something nice coming from them before I’ve even walked in the door.”
Professionally, Joan has been an acting coach, and a director of New York City’s famed improvisational-satirical group, The Premise, which left her with two very important talents she’d use years later form “Mary Hartman”: her keen sense of satire, and a way of working with actors which frees them from a director’s scrutiny until it’s time to rehearse a scene, at which time she offers suggestions for the first time.
She’s also been a failed Broadway star. “I got the lead in two Broadway shows in one season: The Minor Adjustment, a Canadian comedy, which closed the night after it opened, and a little epic called Leda Had a Little Swan, which closed the night before it opened.”
She’s also been a struggling television actress, who called it quits for a year, only to be lured back twice by Universal, the last time for the “Owen Marshall” series. And now, Joan Darling is a director, and a huge success, in a field where women are a rare breed indeed. This coming season, she brings her wit and her talents to the Mary Tyler Moore funny factory. Unlike “MH2,” which she decided to do because the concept intrigued her, Joan says she made the move to MTM because of the people who work there as actors, writers and creators. She’ll direct most of the familiar MTM shows with the possible exception of Miss Mary herself. It’s that show’s last season, and directorial duties will probably go to old friends, Joan speculates. She’s also involved with the new Lorenzo Music variety series. Lorenzo, of course, in addition to being the voice of Carlton the Doorman, is also the creator of several MTM shows, including “Rhoda.” Ex-husband, Eric Darling, by the way, is one of the regulars on the Music show.
Now with all that, has Joan Darling finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up? Almost, she says, but not quite.
“I have new fields to conquer. I’ve still got great moments ahead of me, of walking into a situation and not knowing how to do it, and then learning how to do it, which I love. It took me a long time to admit it, but I like the thrills and chills; I like being scared to death and wondering if I can make out, and then trying and learning.
“I have no ambitions as a director; I still do as an actress. But, ambition in our culture means, to me, ‘achieve it, and the bluebird of happiness will be yours forever.’ Well, I’ve learned, and I guess I’m still in the process of finding out that nothing outside yourself makes you feel better, whether it’s romance, or work, or achievements or awards. Unless you solve what’s sitting in here,” she says, pointing to her heart, “nothing fixes it.”