Charles Lane: What a Character!

My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”

Photo: pinterest.com

However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.

He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.

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The Music Man

A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.

His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.

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You Can’t Take It with You

During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.

Photo: imdb2freeforums.net
I Love Lucy

During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.

Photo: blogspot.com
The Andy Griffith Show

The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Gomer Pyle USMC

Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.

Photo: filmstarfacts.com
Petticoat Junction

Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chico and the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and Dark Shadows.

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Bewitched

The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Soap

Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”

Photo: allmovie.com
TV Lands Award March 2005

Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.

Photo: blogspot.com
Homer Bedloe

Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 3: Henry Jones and Olan Soule

My series, “Just a Couple of Characters” continues with Part 3 today. This month, we learn more about actors we recognize but may not know much about. This week Henry Jones and Olan Soule are on the hot seat.

Henry Jones

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Born in New Jersey in 1912 and raised in Pennsylvania, his grandfather was a first-generation Prussian immigrant who became a Representative. Henry went to St. Joseph’s College, a Jesuit school. He landed his first Broadway show in 1938, playing Reynaldo and a grave digger in “ Hamlet. ” Like many of the actors in the late 30s and early 40s, Henry joined the Army for World War II. He was a private. During his service, he was cast as a singing soldier, Mr.  Brown, in Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army.”

When he came back to the US, he married Yvonne Sarah Bernhardt-Buerger in 1942. I think that it took longer for her to sign her name on the marriage certificate than the marriage lasted because ten months later they were divorced. Jones continued his stage roles and began a movie career. He had bit parts in 35 films, including The Bad Seed, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Vertigo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won a Supporting Actor Tony in 1958 for his performance of Louis Howe in “Sunrise at Campobello.”

Photo: fanpix.famousfix.com

In 1948 he married Judith Johnson. They had two children (one is actress Jocelyn Jones) but divorced in 1961.

Bridging the gap of television and film, he starred in seventeen tv movies as well.

Although his movie career kept him somewhat busy, it was nothing compared to his television work. Jones was credited with 205 acting appearances, meaning he had roles in 153 different television series. Jones was able to tackle a wide range of roles, being believable as a judge, a janitor, a murderer, or a minister. Jones had no illusions about becoming a romantic lead. He once said that “casting directors didn’t know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads.”

Photo: findagrave.com

His first television appearance was in drama series, Hands of Mystery, in 1949. His work in the 1950s was primarily in theater shows about dramas. He also appeared in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Father Knows Best.

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He continued his drama roles into the 1960s. He also appeared in 3 episodes of The Real McCoys and westerns including Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone. He showed up on mysteries such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game. He also found work on unique shows including Lost in Space, Route 66, and the Alfred Hitchcock Show. Hitchcock liked his work and used him five times. He also appeared in several comedies, Bewitched and That Girl. He starred in Channing in 1963-64.  Jones played Fred Baker, a dean who mentors Professor Joe Howe who teaches English at Channing College while he writes his memoir about the Korean War.

During the 1970s, he continued to work on a variety of genre shows. We see him on westerns, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. We see him in thrillers like The Mod Squad; McMillan and Wife; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Six Million Dollar Man, on which he had a recurring role as Dr. Jeffrey, a scientist who built robots. However, comedies continued to be his mainstay, and he appeared in many of them including Nanny and the Professor, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Doris Day Show, the Partridge Family, and Barney Miller.

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In addition to all his guest spots, he was cast in three shows during this decade. In The Girl with Something Extra, he played Owen Metcalf in 1973. The role he was best remembered for was Judge Johnathan Dexter on Phyllis. He was Phyllis’s father-in-law from 1975-1977. As Josh Alden, he appeared on Mrs. Columbo for thirteen episodes.

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Recurring roles comprised most of his television appearances in the 1980s. He continued to accept guest roles on such shows as Quincy ME, Cagney and Lacey, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and Mr. Belvedere. He would make regular appearances on Gun Shy, Code Name: Foxfire, Falcon Crest, and I Married Dora.

Jones continued to appear in shows in the 1990s, including Coach and Empty Nest. In 1999, he passed away after suffering from complications from an injury from a fall.

Olan Soule

Photo: pinterest.com

Olan Soule’s timeline was similar to Jones. He was born in Illinois in 1909, growing up in Iowa, and he passed away in 1994. While Jones’ grandfather arrived in America, Soule’s ancestors included three Mayflower passengers. He began his acting career on the radio.

In 1929 he married Norma Miller. They would be married until her death in 1992 and they had two children.

For eleven years, he was part of the cast of the soap, “Bachelor’s Children.” His roles changed when he transitioned to television. On radio, he could play any role, but his 135-pound frame prohibited him from getting many roles he played on radio. He told the Los Angeles Times during an interview that “People can’t get over my skinny build when they meet me in person after hearing me play heroes and lovers on radio.”

Photo: tralfaz.blogspot.com

However, he certainly was not lacking in roles. Soule is credited with more than 7000 radio episodes and commercials, 60 films, and 200 television series.

The 1950s found him appearing in many sitcoms, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, December Bride, the Ann Sothern Show, and Dennis the Menace.

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He would appear regularly in Dragnet from 1952-59 and in Captain Midnight from 1954-56.

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He got even busier in the 1960s, working nonstop. The only show he had a recurring role on was The Andy Griffith Show where he played choir director and hotel clerk John Masters. Other comedies he appeared on included The Jack Benny Show, Pete and Gladys, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He also took on roles in suspense shows including One Step Beyond, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, and the Twilight Zone. He also specialized in westerns, including Maverick, Stage Coach West, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley.

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He started the 1970s continuing to show up on series such as Family Affair, My Three Sons, McMillan and Wife, Cannon, Police Woman, and a recurring role on the comedy Arnie.

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In the mid-1970s he began appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Project UFO. Most of his career in the decade was spent providing voiceovers for animated shows, primarily Batman.

The Towering Inferno Director: John Guillermin US Premiere: 10 December 1974 Copyright 1974 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Warner Bros. Inc.

In 1994, Soule died from lung cancer at age 84.

Both Soule and Jones were prolific actors who had long and successful careers. Neither one of them were the leading men type of actors, but they could tackle a wide range of roles. Soule once said, “Because of my build and glasses, I’ve mostly played lab technicians, newscasters, and railroad clerks.” Not a bad life for someone who loves acting. If you watch Antenna or Me Tv, chances are you will see these two characters pop up quite often.

Eva Gabor: The Woman Behind Lisa Douglas

Photo: findagrave.com

Lisa Douglas was one of the most interesting characters on television. She oozed elegance and glamour. Like Gracie Allen, she had the ability to be believable in her portrayal of someone who is a bit naïve. She never came across as a dumb blonde. She also was likable. Many stars would have appeared arrogant or snobby in her character. Lisa could wear a sequined designer gown to have hot dogs and beans and fit right in with any Hooterville resident. Oliver, who wanted to be a local farmer and a man of the earth, had a much harder time relating to the local folks. Since Lisa Douglas was my only connection with Eva Gabor, I thought it was time to learn more about the woman behind Hooterville’s wealthiest wife.

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Eva was born in 1919 in Budapest, Hungary. She began her career as a cabaret singer and ice skater before migrating to the US. Her older siblings Magda and Zsa Zsa would also end up in the United States. Eva was considered the one with the most talent; apparently even by herself because she once said, “I was the first actress in the family, and I am still the only actress in the family. I shouldn’t be saying it, but it slipped out.”

Photo: dailymail.co.uk

Zsa Zsa was more the celebrity than the actress. She is known for saying “Dahlink” for “Darling.” She would appear in 54 different episodes on a variety of shows (often portraying herself) including Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, Gillgian’s Island, F-Troop, My Three Sons, Batman, Bonanza, Laugh In, Empty Nest, and believe it or not, Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills.

Magda either didn’t enjoy acting or wasn’t very good, because after two credits in 1937 Hungarian films, she was not involved in the industry.

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Eva’s first movie was in 1941. She would continue her movie career throughout the next couple of decades appearing in The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor in 1954, Artists and Models with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 1955, My Man Godfey with June Allyson and David Niven in 1957, and Gigi with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier in 1958.

Eva would make 36 appearances on shows in the fifties. Most of them were drama such as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse or Kraft Theatre. In 1953 she was given her own talk show. I could not find much information about the show but it was a 15-minute weekly show so she could not have talked too much. Eva was also a successful business woman who sold clothing, wigs, and beauty products. In beauty philosophy was simple: “All any girl needs, at any time in history, is simple velvet and basic diamonds.” Eva also wrote a book in 1954 titled Orchids and Salami. It appears to be about her thoughts on beauty and her ambition and goals.

Photo: imdb.com

She continued her television career during the sixties appearing in many shows including The Ann Sothern Show and Here’s Lucy.

In 1965 she accepted the role of Lisa Douglas in Green Acres. The show would continue until 1971, producing 170 episodes. When her lawyer husband Oliver Douglas decides to leave the rat race and buy a small farm, socialite Lisa does not want to leave New York City. However, she adjusts to life in the small town of Hooterville, charming the locals and making friends. In 1971, shows with rural themes were cancelled and Green Acres left the air.

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After Green Acres, Gabor would appear in only ten shows from 1975 until 1994.

In 1995 Eva fell in a bathtub in Mexico while on vacation. She experienced complications of respiratory failure and pneumonia, and she passed away in Los Angeles shortly thereafter. Magda passed away two years later from a kidney issue. Zsa Zsa would survive until 2016 when she died of a heart attack.

(L-R) Actresses/sisters Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Photo by David Mcgough/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Apart from Lisa Douglas, she might have been best known for her collection of husbands. She married Dr. Erich Valdemar Drimmer in 1939 and divorced him in 1942. In 1943 she married Charles Isaacs whom she divorced in 1950. From 1956-1957 she was married to Dr. John Williams. After divorcing him, she married Richard Brown in 1959. They were married for a record-lasting 13 years before they divorced and she married Frank Jameson in 1973, divorcing him in 1984. She was quoted as saying that “Marriage is too interesting an experiment to be tried only once.” She had no children in any of her marriages.

Her sister Zsa Zsa surpassed her with eleven husbands between 1937 and 2016. Her sayings about marriage included, “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.” She also said, “Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.”

Even Magda could not seem to find the right guy. She was married six times. Her longest marriage was three years! Most of them were one year. Both she and Zsa Zsa were married to actor George Sanders.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Gabor sisters were an interesting trio. While Eva primarily made her living as an actress, the other two seemed to be socialities and celebrities, rather than true actresses. Apparently, Zsa Zsa made life harrowing for her sisters, getting in trouble for various things including slapping a policeman. Merv Griffin, who knew them all but was involved with Eva for more than twelve years, tried to explain the appeal of the Gabors. “They were so beautiful, they were so outrageous,” he said.

The Donna Reed Show: It’s All About the Mom

Merry Christmas Eve.  In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.

In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.

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Photo: dallas.wikia.com

The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”

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Photo: imdb.com

The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.

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Photo: metv.com

The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.

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Photo: pinterest.com

Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s.  Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.

Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com

With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.

In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.

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Photo: metv.com

The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.

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Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was                                                                 the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).

Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.

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Photo: metv.com

In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.

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Photo: nytimes.com

When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.

Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.

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Photo: metv.com

Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.

The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift.  In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.

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Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.

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Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”

I couldn’t say it better.

Celebrating the Single Life: From Ann Sothern to Mary Tyler Moore

Today marks the beginning of National Singles Week. So, we’re taking a closer look at two women who were single and okay with it.

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In the 1950s, Ann Sothern starred in two sitcoms that were almost one and the same. From 1953-57, we watched her in Private Secretary. Susie McNamara was the assistant to Peter Sands at his theatrical agency. When it went off the air due to contract disputes, Susie moved to a New York hotel, and in 1958, she morphed into Katy O’Connor. The show ran until 1961, and Sothern brought three of her former cast members to the hotel with her with new identities.

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In 1970, we met Mary Richards. Mary is an independent career woman. She’d like to meet the right guy, but till he shows up, she’d rather be alone than in an unfulfilling relationship. Like Susie and Katy, Mary’s workmates become part of her extended family.

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Ann Sothern was one of the first, if not the first, single working woman to appear on a sitcom. Susie previously worked as an actress and was a WAC in World War II. Her best friend Vi (Ann Tyrrell) is the receptionist at the agency. Susie often meddled in her boss’s private affairs, especially his female relationships. She could be described as a bit ditzy, but she also ran the office and was very bright.

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Sothern was praised for her acting ability. She was nominated for Emmys three years in a row, but lost to Loretta Young in 1955, Lucille Ball in 1956, and Nanette Fabray in 1957. Lucille Ball, one of her closest friends, called Ann “the best comedian in this business, bar none.”

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To ensure she came across as a serious career woman, great care was taken with the set. It was a state-of-the-art office with the most up-to-date equipment. Connie Brooks, on Our Miss Brooks, was praised by teachers for her realistic portrayal of an educator. Similarly, Ann Sothern was a heroine to secretaries throughout the country. In real life, Sothern was a smart business woman. She invested her money well, owned a variety of companies and a large ranch. She produced Private Secretary and insisted it be preserved on film. As a result, it went into syndication where it was titled “Susie.” From 1987-1990, it aired on Nick at Nite, creating a new fan base for the show.

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The show holds up well. The scripts are a bit predictable and stereotyped, but it reflected the time. Susie McNamara gave young women hope that there was more to life than getting married and raising a family, although that was still an important role for women.

When Sothern was helping to run a posh hotel, Laura Petrie was at home, running her household. She gave up her dancing career to do so, but she was much more than a wife and mom. She and her husband were co-parenting at that time, and they were friends. She and Rob entertained a lot. Laura supported Rob’s friendship with Sally Rogers, one of his co-writers on this television show. She was a career woman who was very funny and smart, albeit lonely.

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Nine years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. Laura Petrie had become Mary Richards, a single career woman making her way to Minneapolis. Mary lived alone, dated infrequently, and spent a lot of her time at work or with her new best friend who lived in the apartment above her.

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While we got to know Susie at work, we just got to know Mary. We saw her at her best and her worst. We saw her joyful, depressed, frustrated, angry, and saw her uncertainty as she navigated life alone.

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Mary’s coworkers became her family. Mary wasn’t ditzy, although she occasionally did a ditzy thing or two. She didn’t try to fix her boss’s problems; she had problems of her own, but she was always there for her WJM family.

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Mary would have liked to find the right guy, but until he came along she was satisfied with her life the way it was. She spent her money any way she wanted. She could wear her pajamas all day on Saturday. She had a fun, modern wardrobe. Work gave her great delight, and it also could be extremely stressful.

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Murray was her best friend at work. He and Mary shared a lot of life. We knew part of Murray was in love with Mary, but we also knew neither of them would ever act on any of those possible feelings since he was married.

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Mary was smart and funny. She was an assistant producer for the daily news. Her office space was not as elaborate as Susie’s. There was never enough money at work or at home.

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The times had allowed Mary to move to the city by herself and set up a home. However, even Mary Richards was not allowed to be a divorcé. The network vetoed the original script and converted Mary to a formerly engaged girl whose relationship fell apart. During the run of the show, her boss’s wife asked for a divorce, so the show still ended up featuring a divorced character.

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the best-written shows in television history. Like M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show, the ensemble of characters drove the show and they were realistic and likeable. The show received 29 Emmys, including three years in a row for Best Comedy (1975-1977). The series tackled a lot of social issues during its run, including equal pay for women, marital infidelity, ethical behavior when Mary goes to jail to protect a news source,  dealing with death of a friend, and Mary’s sleeping pill addiction–real issues facing women at that time.

This was a sophisticated show. It was not predictable. Mary was nice, sometimes too nice for her own good. When everyone else called Mr. Grant Lou, Mary couldn’t bring herself to do it. We were always rooting for her. She had hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and a realistic attitude about life.

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It seems like a big leap between Susie McNamara and Mary Richards, but there were a lot of smaller steps in between. Marlo Thomas’s That Girl provided another smart, funny woman who chose to give up her teaching job to pursue an acting career in New York. Ann Marie was another link in the chain that helped move women forward. While she did have a boyfriend and became engaged during the run of the show, Marlo Thomas ended the show with their marriage up in the air.

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Mary’s life was more realistic than Susie’s. When the Ann Sothern Show ended, Katy and her boss (still played by Don Porter) kiss, and you know that they will end up married, and Katy will no longer be running the office.

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When Mary Tyler Moore’s show ended, everyone on the WJM staff was fired except the totally incompetent Ted Baxter. We don’t know what Mary will be doing, but she has choices. Perhaps she found another news job in a new city. I like to think she found a position in management at a local corporation. Maybe she fell in love with one of the employees she was supervising. I think when she retired and turned on the television, she was watching Murphy Brown’s FYI program, celebrating the leaps women were taking in the workforce.