Cloris Leachman poses nude, and other tales from TV moms

by Jim Longworth

Every generationidentifies with a particular TV family. In the 1950s it was Ozzie& Harriet and Father Knows Best. For me and other baby boomers,it was Leave it to Beaver. For some kids growing up in the 1970s itwas The Brady Bunch while, a decade later, The Cosby Show provideda role model for youngsters of all ages and races. For Kathryn Morris, star of the hit CBS drama Cold Case, it was Family Ties. Iwould watch ‘Family Ties’ and say, ‘They have a good family. Sheunderstands all of those kids. I bet she would understand me.’ Theshe Kathryn referred to is Meredith Baxter, who starred as ElyseKeaton, and years later as Morris’ own dysfunctional mother in severalepisodes of Cold Case. Last month, Morris and a dozen other famous TVkids gathered at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in NorthHollywood to honor their on-screen moms. 3768.jpgI produced andmoderated the event, and was responsible for securing all of thecelebrity participants. The TV moms I interviewed on stage includedCloris Leachman (Lassie. Phyllis, The Ellen Show), DiahannCarroll (Julia), Marjorie Lord (The Danny Thomas Show), Marion Ross(Happy Days), Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men), Tichina Arnold(Everybody Hates Chris), Bonnie Franklin (One Day at a Time),Catherine Hicks (7th Heaven) and Meredith Baxter. BarbaraBillingsley, age 93, (Leave it to Beaver) was hospitalized and unableto attend, but was honored in absentia. I was also able to lineup some outstanding and nostalgic co-stars for the Mother’s Daygathering. Angela Cartwright was on hand to salute Marjorie Lord as wasLord’s real life daughter, Anne Archer, herself an Oscar-nominatedactress. Cartwright also starred in Lost in Space and in The Sound ofMusic as one of the Von Trapp kids. Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer showedup with flowers for Holland Taylor. Young Tyler James Williams was onhand for Tichina Arnold. And the entire crowd from One Day at a Time appeared: Valerie Bertinelli, MacKenzie Phillips and Pat Harrington. Thebeautiful Jasmine Guy surprised Diahann Carroll who played Guy’s mom inA Different World, and she was joined by Marc Copage who played Coreyon the groundbreaking show Julia. Kathryn Morris was accompanied byBaxter’s real life daughter Eva. Erin Moran (Joanie) showed up forMarion Ross. And, Jon Provost (the original Timmy from Lassie)arrived with Cloris Leachman’s son George Englund Jr. Leachman playedthe mom on Lassie for just one season, and hadn’t seen Provost for 50years. But the biggest round of applause that night was forTony Dow and Jerry Mathers (Wally and the Beav), who came up on stageto honor the ailing Ms. Billingsley. All in all, it was quite a reunion. Themain part of the two-hour extravaganza (which was webcast live) was adiscussion with our nine TV Moms about a wide range of issues, fromageism to equal pay for women. But we almost didn’t get to any of thosetopics because my opening ice-breaker question resulted in a burlesqueshow by Leachman. I said, Cloris you recently posed nude for a medical journal. True or false? Ishould have known that Leachman wouldn’t let that go with just aone-word answer. She went into a very descriptive explanation of howshe came to pose nude in her 70s, and what kinds of fruits andvegetables barely covered her private parts. Somewhere during theproceeding she began to unbutton her dress (I stopped her fromstripping), then asked me to take my clothes off. DiahannCarroll admitted that she had also been asked to pose nude, but refusedto give any details. Tichina Arnold confessed to a bare baby photo. AndHolland Taylor spoke up about her nude scene in The Practice. A merefive minutes into this historic event, and I had clearly lost controlof my panel. 3768b.jpgOnce things calmed down a bit, I asked each of theparticipants to talk about their own mothers. Several of the ladiesconfessed that their moms pushed them to sing, dance or act, but mostcame from very normal homes. The most surprising bit of family trivia,however, was revealed by Bonnie Franklin and Meredith Baxter, whoshared a common bond. Baxter’s mother, Whitney Blake, was anaccomplished actress and producer, having starred as the Mom in Hazel. Butfor a time, Blake was a single mother trying to raise a teenageMeredith on her own. Later, Whitney recounted those difficult times andcreated a TV program whose working title was 38/18, referring to theages of the Mother and daughter. The story was presented to Norman Lear(All in the Family) who added another daughter to the treatment, andretitled it One Day at a Time. Bonnie Franklin then ended upportraying Meredith Baxter’s real life mom about a recent divorce andher two teenage girls. Without Blake’s creation, there would have neverbeen an Annie Romano, and Valerie Bertinelli probably wouldn’t be indemand for book tours today. My question about equal pay forwomen in television sparked some interesting discussion among thesemulti-generational TV moms. I fueled the fire by citing a story fromVicki Lawrence’s book. Vicki!: The True-Life Adventures of MissFireball, in which she once asked Joe Hamilton (Carol Burnett’sproducer/husband) for the same pay as co-star Lyle Waggonner. No,replied Hamilton. Lyle has a family to support. My anecdote producedgroans from the panel and the audience alike. Catherine Hicks said that she made much less money than her male co-star (Stephen Collins) in 7th Heaven. Itbugged me to death because we shared the show equally. I wasn’t justbringing in bowls of soup, I had to work as hard as he did. Baxter was quite vocal. On ‘Bridget Loves Bernie,’ she said, I made less for no reason. That was the series in which she played opposite then-husband David Birney. Happily, though, she revealed that her pay was the same as Michael Gross during production of Family Ties. MarionRoss recalled a time when she walked off of Happy Days in protest ofnot receiving the same pay as Tom Bosley, Henry Winkler or Ron Howard. Prettysoon, Ron called me and said ‘Marion, they’re going to replace you,’and I said, ‘I’ll be right in.’ That story evoked a big laugh from theAcademy audience. I also asked our TV moms about the absence ofwomen and minority writers on their programs. Diahann Carroll broke newground in 1968 by becoming the first woman of color to star in her ownTV series. Still, it was a white man, creator Hal Kanter, who wrotealmost all of the scripts. We met, we fought for a minute, and then Iadored him, she said. I didn’t care what color he was, I just wantedto work with him. And that eventually becomes part of your own fabricwhen you’re in the business. You begin only to judge people accordingto their artistic contribution. Marion Ross once asked HappyDays producer Garry Marshall to let her character tackle some of thefeminist issues that were in the news during the 1950s. Marshallreplied, [The script] is fine the way it is. It’s not about you, it’sabout the boys. Catherine Hicks had a different concern. 7thHeaven was created and written by my friend Brenda Hampton, yet Hickswanted her character to have a career. Hampton insisted that for AnnieCamden, the preacher’s wife, her job was to be a stay-at-home mom in amodern day era. Said Hicks, She was right. I’m not saying you shouldgive up your career, but it validated family, saying it’s okay to bedevoted to your kids for awhile. Baxter remembered that herboss, Gary David Goldberg refused to let Elyse have an affair, tellingMeredith, Steven could do that, but not Elyse. And BonnieFranklin praised Norman Lear for his willingness to write realisticallyfor a single mom. The staff was all male except for a few freelancefemale scribes who worked on the show from time to time. However, therewas one incident where Franklin put her foot down. The first act wasabout Ann going to a singles bar and fooling around, and the second actwas her getting raped. I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, it needs tobe the whole episode.’ Lear agreed and later recycled the story linefor Jean Stapleton and her memorable rape scene in All in the Family. Nextcame a discussion about ageism in Hollywood. Marjorie Lord, one of themost beautiful women to ever grace the screen, recalled how actressesused to protect their age. When I was in my forties, I was playing27-year-old people on the stage, she said. But if they had printed myreal age in the paper, it would have been harder for the audience tobuy me as a young woman. So we were very quiet about our ages. Todayevery time someone has a birthday it’s in the paper. You should nevertell a producer you are certain age because he will get that age fixedin his mind. Marion then praised Cloris for being able to playa woman of any age, and recalled seeing Leachman portray a femaletrucker. You played this woman trucker with the lowest bust I eversaw. It was awfully low. I put a pack of cigarettes up in mysleeve, Leachman replied, and I had been taught to drive this bigsemi. I had this great big chest and a tight shirt. A woman was on setwho had this baby with her, so she had me hold the baby. I said, ‘Getthis baby away from me because he’s hungry.’ I then asked our legendary mothers to tell me which TV mom (other than themselves), they most wanted to play or most admired. Cloris Leachman: I wanted Marion Ross’s job. Jim Longworth: You liked Marion in ‘Happy Days’? Leachman: No, I just wanted the job. Catherine Hicks said she admired Donna Reed. Franklin praised Ross’s performance in Brooklyn Bridge. MeredithBaxter said she loved Roseanne. Tichina Arnold said, Bonnie was akick-ass mom. If I ever played a mom, I wanted to be her. HollandTaylor gave kudos to Sada Thompson in Family. And Marjorie Lordconfessed to being a big fan of Doris Roberts. Marjorie Lord: I have been watching re-runs of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ I go to bed laughing all by myself. Longworth: I do too. Leachman: You shouldn’t sleep by yourself. (She gets up out of her chair to hug me) Longworth: My wife Pam is right over there. Leachman: Okay, wife. (She sits back down.) Asgreat as the panel discussion was, the highlight of the evening waswhen I brought the celebrity TV offspring up on stage to presentflowers and candy to their respective TV moms. I passed the handmicrophone to each presenter so they could give their own personaltestimonial. At that moment, they weren’t TV stars. There was nopretense. They were all excited to be there in the presence of ourlegendary TV moms. Jerry Mathers said that Barbara Billingsley taught him manners. Tony Dow retorted, Then how come you didn’t learn them? Thatnext day, Tony, his wife Lauren, my wife Pam and I went to visitBarbara in the hospital and tell her all about the TV moms event andhow much everyone missed her. The 50-year reunion between Jon Provost (Timmy) and Leachman was magic. FYI,the reason she quit Lassie after only one season (1957): Hernext-door neighbor, Marlon Brando, told her to look for otheropportunities. Thanks to Brando, Leachman has amassed an Oscar andeight Emmys. Jasmine Guy told Diahann Carroll, You taught me alot about growing up as a woman, and as a woman in this business, amother and actress. Thank you for having my back in so many ways. Meanwhile Marc Copage made a stirring speech to the woman he still refers to as Ms. Carroll. Having grown up without a real life mother, he said, Ms. Carroll filled that void. ErinMoran recalled the many days she and Marion Ross spent in the make-uproom together, and the former Joanie said it was Ross who inspiredher to do her first play. Though Jon Cryer was on hand to praiseHolland Taylor, the first words out of his mouth were, Marion Ross isawesome! He then turned his attention to Taylor, saying, I don’tthink there’s enough representation of real sociopathic mothers ontelevision, so thank you Holland. Cryer’s on-screen brother CharlieSheen was more serious in describing his relationship with Holland. Youtaught me how to behave and how to see the world away from our show.he said. I have an amazing mom in real life, but if I had to have asubstitute, it would be you. I love you. Tyler James Williamsbrought down the house when he recounted Tichina Arnold’s sage adviceto him on the set of Everybody Hates Chris: Don’t ever let anybodysteal your shot. MacKenzie Phillips made several references toher rock-star upbringing – I was raised by wolves, she said – and toher bout with drugs. Her impromptu speech to Bonnie Franklin, PatHarrington and Valerie Bertinelli was touching. I would comeinto rehearsal reeling from the night before, and my gaze would fallupon these beautiful people, she said. You taught me a lot and everydoor you guys opened for me, I slammed shut right behind me. But yearslater, I’m able to get it, and I love you so much. Bertinelli,who has played the daughter or daughter-in-law of three of the TV Momson stage, commented, I’m so grateful to every single one of you onthis panel for leading the way for all of us. Thank you. I love you,and Happy Mother’s Day. It took me four months to put the TVmoms event together, and it was over in two short hours. Sort of likeJune Cleaver taking all day to prepare a meal that Wally and Beavergulp down in just a few minutes. Still, I will always savor the time Ispent with these great stars, and I am grateful for the friendshipsthat have developed from it. A few days after Pam and I returnedhome from Los Angeles, I got a call from Robert O’Donnell, an executivewith the academy. Hey, he said, what about a salute to TV dadsnext? Sounds great, but before I start calling Bernie Mac,George Lopez and Andy Griffith, I need to see if Mrs. Cleaver has somemilk and cookies in the fridge. Jim Longworth is host of Triad Today on abc45, the author of TV Creators, and is a judge for the prime time Emmys.