Is Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman Going Too Far, Too Far?
By Beverly Linet
During its first twenty-six weeks on the air, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” hapless housewife heroine of the mythical Fernwood, Ohio, grappled with the horrors of fraudulent faith healers, open marriages, masturbation, marijuana, V.D., and a neighborhood mass murder triggered by a bad knock-knock joke.
If that wasn’t enough, she also managed to help cause a neighbor’s death by providing him with the chicken soup in which he drowned, found herself held prisoner in a Chinese laundry, and finally suffered a massive nervous breakdown in front of an audience of millions—on “The David Susskind Show.”
The more Mary suffered, the higher the ratings soared, and although Boston critic Anthony Camera blasted 1976’s biggest smash hit by saying that “There is something sick, sick and twisted, twisted about ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,’ the public remained glued to the set and independent stations stampeded to pick it up for a second season. The first show of the new season found Mary in a catatonic state in a local mental asylum; super-stud Charlie Haggers in a hospital suffering the loss of one crucial genital organ through an accidental gunshot blast, sophisticated Gore Vidal wandering around playing himself (an author hoping to turn Mary’s story into a best-seller), and sister Cathy becoming pregnant by person or persons unknown.
At this point, the question was raised: Had “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” gone too far, too far? And how much further could it go, without either offending the sensibilities of viewers, or dulling them to the point where a rerun of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm would seem a relief?
In Celebrity’s own search for the facts among viewers, we found some turned off because they feel the show has become a sort of “in” joke. Others were turned off because they did not consider the subject matter, particularly severe mental illness, a laughing matter. But, so far, it appears that nobody is sufficiently turned off to turn off the TV set.
An announced “summer hiatus” of reruns to give the frazzled cast a much-needed rest didn’t result in diminished interest, as feared. And—wonder of wonders—neither did the drug-bust of star Louise “Mary” Lasser, who was found with a vial of cocaine in her purse last Spring. An incident that might have ruined her career and the show not so many years ago did result in momentary hysteria—at least, until the ratings held and none of the stations rushed to cancel their contracts.
Five months later, while still avoiding the subject when it was brought up by members of the Fourth Estate, Louise did talk at length about it with Tom Snyder on NBC’s “Tomorrow Show,” injecting the legal point that the charge against her was for possession rather than use of the drug in question, fearful that a slip of any kind could be detrimental to the eventual resolution of her case. During the crucial six-months period of her probation, Louise had to partake in what is known as the court’s diversionary program for first offenders. The standard operating procedure is to send the offender to a diversionary school. In Louise’s case, however, it was decided that her probation period be spent under the care and supervision of a private psychiatrist.
Louise, however, failed to mention to Tom that prior to her sudden ascent to super-stardom she had spent fifteen years in psychoanalysis in order to ease what has been called, “her own Mary-like malaise.” Nor did she reveal that she had a severe emotional jolt, when while still in her 20’s, her mother committed suicide shortly after being divorced from her father S. Jay Lasser, a wealthy tax expert and culture-minded man who both pampered his only child and molded her sensitive spirit.
So why was she sent to a private psychiatrist instead of the school for first offenders?
“The reason I didn’t go to the school,” Louise explained, “is because they felt I’d almost be being penalized because of my celebrity-ness…that I’d get so much recognition that it would make it tough on me. For the same reason—my celebrity status—people think, ‘Well, that helps get her out of the case.’ That makes it so much tougher. The whole nation is waiting to see ‘Will they let her off or will they not?’ It puts the courts in a difficult position, too. This is a situation which scares me very much. It’s been an incredibly emotional, very painful situation.”
When Louise discussed her problem with Tom nothing had been decided. “Right now I’m still on probation. Bt in a couple of months if it’s still going the way it has been going, this is totally taken off my record. I’d have no record whatsoever.”
She also likes to point out how marvelous the entire cast, crew, and production team of “Mary Hartman” had been to her during the difficult weeks and months following her arrest.
“They were so supportive—they were so wonderful. Not only was I never threatened with loss of my job, but I was only given comfort. Just pure, pure comfort. The same reaction came from the audiences. They don’t know Louise as well as they know Mary and they thought maybe Mary made a mistake and asked ‘Is there anything we can do to help? Does Mary want a daisy?’”
Louise has a way of talking about Mary and herself in the third person as though both were fictional characters. “Sometimes I look and I say, ‘Who is she, who is she?’ I like Mary. I like Mary a lot. Sometimes I like Mary more than I like Louise. She is a side of me that is an innocent, gentle side.”
And the not-so-innocent and gentle side of Louise?
“I express hostility more openly than she does. I am one of the most independent people I know. I’ll say ‘F--- you’ to anybody.”
She said it to Norman Lear (though perhaps not in those exact words) when he first approached her about doing the role, but her independence was softened somewhat when she was offered a $5,000-a-week contract—and the freedom to drop out after a year’s run.
It was quite a year—with a schedule that would exhaust a veteran of unlimited physical and emotional strength. And Louise is hardly noted for having an abundance of either.
Yet paradoxically, she rebels when it is suggested that “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is now being tailored specifically for her as its star.
“It’s a real conglomerate, a group effort.”
Louise/Mary is being modest. According to one cameraman grinding out a show a day, there was absolute panic at Tandem Productions at the mere thought that Louise might take Lear at his word and drop out after a year’s run—as he promised she could. And no one outside of the parties directly involved and the IRS know exactly how much the financial pot was sweetened to keep Louise on the payroll for at least another year.
When Tom Snyder interviewed Louise, he vocally expressed the fears on everyone’s mind.
“You are Mary and Mary is you,” stated Tom emphatically. “You really are her, and if for some reason you decide you can’t do that show anymore, I’ll wager that show will go off the air or become another soap opera or another dramatic series. But it won’t be called “Mary Hartman” because you won’t be in it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Louise. “There’s a way to figure out anything. Who knows what will work or not work? But I suppose I have to agree. Nobody else can play Mary because I’m a lot Mary and I’m a lot Louise. I think someone else might work doing the show but no one can play me.”
It is also a two-edged sword. If Mary can’t survive without Louise, will she in turn be the instrument of Louise’s destruction? Has this fusion of identities gone too far? Just as Mary’s future without Louise is cloudy, so many say is Louise’s, should she decide to depart from Fernwood. However Louise is showing no dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“People say to me, ‘Are you afraid of being locked into the character?’ No. Why should I be? At the beginning I hesitated taking the role because not only did I think playing in a soap opera was humiliating, but I didn’t ‘get’ the material. It was too different. Now I feel differently. I’m getting more of a dramatic range on this show than I would in almost any movies. I really believe in the people. I really believe if you show the public something good, they’ll watch it. And if you show them something bad, they won’t.”
But will they watch Louise in something good—if she’s not Mary? As an old New York friend of hers told Celebrity, “Even if Louise is offered the opportunity to do Chekhov’s Three Sisters in the theater, don’t you think there would be some jokers in the audience who’d yet out, ‘Masha Prozorov, Masha Prozorov?’”
At the height of the Hartman hysteria, Louise said, “The acceptance of the show proves to me that I do fit into society. I’m amazed that any American family would take Mary into their home. And if they would take Mary in, they’d take Louise in.” However, the questions remain that if Mary Hartman is going too far, how long will it be before she’s shown the door? And with or without Mary, will Louise be out in the cold too?