Shortly after this satirical soap premiered in 1976, the general manager of a Boston television station phoned producer Norman Lear’s office in Hollywood and announced, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest “Mary Hartman”…I love it! In Nashville, Tennessee, convicts in the state penitentiary banged cups on their prison cell bars every afternoon to warn guards they wanted the recreation hall television set tuned to “Mary Hartman” when their break came. The Village Voice enthusiastically called “Mary Hartman” “the most disconcertingly funny show ever on TV.”
Overwhelmed by the response his new series generated, a delighted Norman Lear said, “In no way could I guess the kind of reception “Mary Hartman” would receive.” Considering Norman Lear was forced to pitch his serial directly to local television stations after all three networks turned it down, it’s easy to understand his surprise.
Aside from her Pollyanna housedress and braided pigtails, Mary Hartman was an ordinary housewife living in fictional Fernwood, Ohio. While she spent her days fretting over her kitchen floor’s waxy yellow build-up, her husband, Tom, worked on the assembly line at the town factory. Their 12-year-old daughter, Heather, was constantly plotting to run away from home. Mary’s parents, George and Martha Shumway, lived down the street. They shared their home with Mary’s sex-crazed younger sister, Cathy, and Martha’s father, Grandpa Larkin, also known as “The Fernwood Flasher.” Living next door to Mary and Tom was middle-aged Charlie Haggers, who worked with Tom and George at the plant. Loretta, his wife, was a 22-year-old aspiring country singer.
The residents of Fernwood were inspired by an article Lear read in Life magazine about the hardships encountered by an assembly line worker who lived in Lordstown, Ohio. “We simply decided we’d put a tract of homes there,” said Al Burton, the serial’s creative supervisor, “and the father would work in the plant and the husband would work in the plant and the next door neighbor would work in the plant. If the plant went on strike, they’d all be out of work; if they’re all laid off because of the economy, then we’d deal with the economy.”
Gail Parent, a former writer for “The Carol Burnett Show,” assisted Norman Lear and Al Burton in creating the series. When Parent bowed out of the project, Ann Marcus, who’d written for daytime’s “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” and “Search for Tomorrow,” came on board as headwriter. Marcus stayed with the series through its first season.
The comic tone for the serial was set in the opening episode when an excited Loretta Haggers knocked on Mary’s kitchen door and breathlessly announced, “You’ll never believe what happened!”
“There was a mass murder on the next block,” Cathy dryly responded.
“You mean somebody told you before me?” asked a wide-eyed Loretta, with more than just a touch of disappointment.
The murder of all five members of the Lombardi family, their two goats, and eight chickens was just the beginning. One crisis after another unfolded during the serial’s two-year run.