Cloris Leachman poses nude, and other tales from TV moms
Every generation identifies 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 it was “The Brady Bunch” while, a decade later, “The Cosby Show” provided a role model for youngsters of all ages and races.
For Kathryn Morris, star of the hit CBS drama “Cold Case,” it was “Family Ties.”
“I would watch ‘Family Ties’ and say, ‘They have a good family. She understands all of those kids. I bet she would understand me.'”
The “she” Kathryn referred to is Meredith Baxter, who starred as Elyse Keaton, and years later as Morris’ own dysfunctional mother in several episodes of “Cold Case.” Last month, Morris and a dozen other famous TV kids gathered at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood to honor their on-screen moms.
I produced and moderated the event, and was responsible for securing all of the celebrity participants. The TV moms I interviewed on stage included Cloris Leachman (“Lassie.” “Phyllis,” “The Ellen Show”), Diahann Carroll (“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. Barbara Billingsley, age 93, (“Leave it to Beaver”) was hospitalized and unable to attend, but was honored in absentia.
I was also able to line up some outstanding and nostalgic co-stars for the Mother’s Day gathering. Angela Cartwright was on hand to salute Marjorie Lord as was Lord’s real life daughter, Anne Archer, herself an Oscar-nominated actress. Cartwright also starred in “Lost in Space” and in The Sound of Music as one of the Von Trapp kids. Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer showed up with flowers for Holland Taylor. Young Tyler James Williams was on hand for Tichina Arnold.
And the entire crowd from “One Day at a Time” appeared: Valerie Bertinelli, MacKenzie Phillips and Pat Harrington.
The beautiful Jasmine Guy surprised Diahann Carroll who played Guy’s mom in “A Different World,” and she was joined by Marc Copage who played Corey on the groundbreaking show “Julia.” Kathryn Morris was accompanied by Baxter’s real life daughter Eva. Erin Moran (Joanie) showed up for Marion Ross.
And, Jon Provost (the original Timmy from “Lassie”) arrived with Cloris Leachman’s son George Englund Jr. Leachman played the mom on “Lassie” for just one season, and hadn’t seen Provost for 50 years.
But the biggest round of applause that night was for Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers (Wally and the Beav), who came up on stage to honor the ailing Ms. Billingsley. All in all, it was quite a reunion.
The main part of the two-hour extravaganza (which was webcast live) was a discussion with our nine TV Moms about a wide range of issues, from ageism to equal pay for women. But we almost didn’t get to any of those topics because my opening ice-breaker question resulted in a burlesque show by Leachman.
I said, “Cloris you recently posed nude for a medical journal. True or false?”
I should have known that Leachman wouldn’t let that go with just a one-word answer. She went into a very descriptive explanation of how she came to pose nude in her 70s, and what kinds of fruits and vegetables barely covered her private parts. Somewhere during the proceeding she began to unbutton her dress (I stopped her from stripping), then asked me to take my clothes off.
Diahann Carroll admitted that she had also been asked to pose nude, but refused to give any details. Tichina Arnold confessed to a bare baby photo. And Holland Taylor spoke up about her nude scene in “The Practice.” A mere five minutes into this historic event, and I had clearly lost control of my panel.
Once things calmed down a bit, I asked each of the participants to talk about their own mothers. Several of the ladies confessed that their moms pushed them to sing, dance or act, but most came from very normal homes. The most surprising bit of family trivia, however, was revealed by Bonnie Franklin and Meredith Baxter, who shared a common bond. Baxter’s mother, Whitney Blake, was an accomplished actress and producer, having starred as the Mom in “Hazel.”
But for a time, Blake was a single mother trying to raise a teenage Meredith on her own. Later, Whitney recounted those difficult times and created a TV program whose working title was “38/18,” referring to the ages of the Mother and daughter. The story was presented to Norman Lear (“All in the Family”) who added another daughter to the treatment, and retitled it “One Day at a Time.” Bonnie Franklin then ended up portraying Meredith Baxter’s real life mom about a recent divorcée and her two teenage girls. Without Blake’s creation, there would have never been an Annie Romano, and Valerie Bertinelli probably wouldn’t be in demand for book tours today.
My question about equal pay for women in television sparked some interesting discussion among these multi-generational TV moms. I fueled the fire by citing a story from Vicki Lawrence’s book. Vicki!: The True-Life Adventures of Miss Fireball, in which she once asked Joe Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s producer/husband) for the same pay as co-star Lyle Waggonner. “No,” replied Hamilton. “Lyle has a family to support.” My anecdote produced groans 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.”
“It bugged me to death because we shared the show equally. I wasn’t just bringing 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.”
Marion Ross recalled a time when she walked off of “Happy Days” in protest of not receiving the same pay as Tom Bosley, Henry Winkler or Ron Howard.
“Pretty soon, 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 the Academy audience.
I also asked our TV moms about the absence of women and minority writers on their programs. Diahann Carroll broke new ground in 1968 by becoming the first woman of color to star in her own TV series. Still, it was a white man, creator Hal Kanter, who wrote almost all of the scripts. “We met, we fought for a minute, and then I adored him,” she said. “I didn’t care what color he was, I just wanted to work with him. And that eventually becomes part of your own fabric when you’re in the business. You begin only to judge people according to their artistic contribution.”
Marion Ross once asked “Happy Days” producer Garry Marshall to let her character tackle some of the feminist issues that were in the news during the 1950s. Marshall replied, “[The script] is fine the way it is. It’s not about you, it’s about the boys.”
Catherine Hicks had a different concern. “7th Heaven” was created and written by my friend Brenda Hampton, yet Hicks wanted her character to have a career. Hampton insisted that for Annie Camden, the preacher’s wife, her job was to be a stay-at-home mom in a modern day era. Said Hicks, “She was right. I’m not saying you should give up your career, but it validated family, saying it’s okay to be devoted to your kids for awhile.”
Baxter remembered that her boss, Gary David Goldberg refused to let Elyse have an affair, telling Meredith, “Steven could do that, but not Elyse.”
And Bonnie Franklin praised Norman Lear for his willingness to write realistically for a single mom. The staff was all male except for a few freelance female scribes who worked on the show from time to time. However, there was one incident where Franklin put her foot down. “The first act was about Ann going to a singles bar and fooling around, and the second act was her getting raped. I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, it needs to be the whole episode.'” Lear agreed and later recycled the story line for Jean Stapleton and her memorable rape scene in “All in the Family.”
Next came a discussion about ageism in Hollywood. Marjorie Lord, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen, recalled how actresses used to protect their age. “When I was in my forties, I was playing 27-year-old people on the stage,” she said. “But if they had printed my real age in the paper, it would have been harder for the audience to buy me as a young woman. So we were very quiet about our ages. Today every time someone has a birthday it’s in the paper. You should never tell a producer you are certain age because he will get that age fixed in his mind.”
Marion then praised Cloris for being able to play a woman of any age, and recalled seeing Leachman portray a female trucker. “You played this woman trucker with the lowest bust I ever saw. It was awfully low.”
“I put a pack of cigarettes up in my sleeve,” Leachman replied, “and I had been taught to drive this big semi. I had this great big chest and a tight shirt. A woman was on set who had this baby with her, so she had me hold the baby. I said, ‘Get this 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.”
Meredith Baxter said she loved “Roseanne.” Tichina Arnold said, “Bonnie was a kick-ass mom. If I ever played a mom, I wanted to be her.” Holland Taylor gave kudos to Sada Thompson in “Family.” And Marjorie Lord confessed 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.)
As great as the panel discussion was, the highlight of the evening was when I brought the celebrity TV offspring up on stage to present flowers and candy to their respective TV moms.
I passed the hand microphone to each presenter so they could give their own personal testimonial. At that moment, they weren’t TV stars. There was no pretense. They were all excited to be there in the presence of our legendary TV moms.
Jerry Mathers said that Barbara Billingsley taught him manners. Tony Dow retorted, “Then how come you didn’t learn them?”
That next day, Tony, his wife Lauren, my wife Pam and I went to visit Barbara in the hospital and tell her all about the TV moms event and how 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): Her next-door neighbor, Marlon Brando, told her to look for other opportunities. Thanks to Brando, Leachman has amassed an Oscar and eight Emmys.
Jasmine Guy told Diahann Carroll, “You taught me a lot about growing up as a woman, and as a woman in this business, a mother 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.”
Erin Moran recalled the many days she and Marion Ross spent in the make-up room together, and the former “Joanie” said it was Ross who inspired her to do her first play.
Though Jon Cryer was on hand to praise Holland Taylor, the first words out of his mouth were, “Marion Ross is awesome!” He then turned his attention to Taylor, saying, “I don’t think there’s enough representation of real sociopathic mothers on television, so thank you Holland.” Cryer’s on-screen brother Charlie Sheen was more serious in describing his relationship with Holland.
“You taught 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 a substitute, it would be you. I love you.”
Tyler James Williams brought down the house when he recounted Tichina Arnold’s sage advice to him on the set of “Everybody Hates Chris”: “Don’t ever let anybody steal your shot.”
MacKenzie Phillips made several references to her rock-star upbringing – “I was raised by wolves,” she said – and to her bout with drugs. Her impromptu speech to Bonnie Franklin, Pat Harrington and Valerie Bertinelli was touching.
“I would come into rehearsal reeling from the night before, and my gaze would fall upon these beautiful people,” she said. “You taught me a lot and every door you guys opened for me, I slammed shut right behind me. But years later, 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 Moms on stage, commented, “I’m so grateful to every single one of you on this 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 TV moms event together, and it was over in two short hours. Sort of like June Cleaver taking all day to prepare a meal that Wally and Beaver gulp down in just a few minutes. Still, I will always savor the time I spent with these great stars, and I am grateful for the friendships that have developed from it.
A few days after Pam and I returned home from Los Angeles, I got a call from Robert O’Donnell, an executive with the academy. “Hey,” he said, “what about a salute to TV dads next?”
Sounds great, but before I start calling Bernie Mac, George Lopez and Andy Griffith, I need to see if Mrs. Cleaver has some milk 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.