THE JOURNAL OF THE CAUCUS: ARCHIVE
by Ann Marcus


THE TRUTH ABOUT MARY HARTMANíS WAXY YELLOW BUILDUP

I think I was the writer of last resort on Norman Lear's new project in 1975 and I got to see him through the back door. Well, maybe it was the side door. At any rate he had just about given up trying to find a writer to implement his idea for a very different kind of soap opera even though his stubborn chief of staff, Al Burton, kept looking for one. Al ran into my agent, Bob Eisenbach, in the menís room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and that's how I got to meet Norman. Not in the men's room, but in his office in the Metromedia building on Sunset. Norman was wearing his signature outfit: cashmere sweater, white porkpie hat and Fumanchu mustache. Al was there, too, as Norman explained his concept, a soap on two levels. One level would satirize the medium, the other would hook the audience with characters and stories on a realistic level. Obviously, since it was a Norman Lear project, the stories would be controversial -- all Normanís shows were. But with Mary Hartman Norman wanted to be outrageous.

The concept sounded logical enough; the soap would be built around an auto worker's family -- Tom, his wife Mary, their adolescent child, plus Mary's parents, sister, and neighbors -- a typical, ordinary blue collar family living in a small town in Ohio. But there was a stipulation. It was what Norman insisted on happening the first week of the soap. And it was so bizarre that it had driven half the comedy writers in Hollywood screaming from his office. They heard the pitch and told him a) it wasn't funny; b) it wouldn't work; c) heíd never get it on the air; d) if by some chance he did get it on the air nobody would watch it and e) "Let me outa here!"

So what was this vision of Norman's that had freaked out all those writers? He wanted to open with the mass murder of a neighborhood family including their goats and chickens; he wanted Maryís father to be exposed as the town flasher; and he wanted a connubial scene between Tom and Mary in which he couldn't get it up.

It was Norman's litmus test. If, on hearing this outrageous litany, a writer used any of the above-mentioned a) through e) comments the meeting was over. I wanted the job so bad I sat glued to the chair when I heard it. I did not bolt. I did not gasp. I even managed to laugh.

"Wonderful," I said. "What a great way to start," I added shamelessly, intuitively realizing that Norman, like every other writer I've ever known, including myself, loves to be flattered.

Norman and Al looked at each other. I hadnít t run screaming from the room. I passed the test.

But in the coming weeks as I struggled to deal with the material, create the story lines, flesh out the family and invent the neighborhood characters, I realized those other freaked out writers who had failed the test ware right. There isn't anything funny about the massacre of a family of five even or especially if their goats and chickens are included. And a middle-aged man who exposes himself is a sad, sick, and possibly dangerous person. (At least I insisted that the semi-senile 83-year old Grandpa Larkin should be the flasher and not Mary's father.)

I wasn't having much fun and Norman wasn't much help at first. He was busy with his other shows and he had had so many negative reactions about the concept from other writers that I don't think he felt I could bring it off. Neither did I. I knew I needed help and I knew where to look for it.

Ken Hartman had changed his name some time between working with me on Love is a Many Splendored Thing and Search for Tomorrow. He had flirted with all sorts of New Age philosophies and other non-establishment practices, numerology being one of them. So he rechristened himself Daniel Gregory Browne because the letters added up to some special number that was supposed to be good for him, I guess. Whatever, he was still a brilliant writer and I desperately needed him to help create the show.

I also recruited Jerry Adelman whose weird, eclectic sense of the absurd fit in perfectly with the style of the show.

The three of us solved the problem of how to make the mass murder palatable and even funny by not showing it and simply having Mary and friends react to it. And then we went on to deal with Grandpa Larking flashing and Tom's impotency. We fleshed in Mary's family, the Shumways, and created the other characters, the neighbors -- in particular the Haggars, would-be Country/Western singer Loretta and Tom's best chum Charlie -- plus Sgt. Foley, Coach Leroy Fedders and his wife, Jimmy Joe Jeeter, the eight-year-old evangelist and his slick dad Merle, Ed and Howard, the homosexual couple, and all the others.

But the major character, Mary Hartman herself, had already been created. Norman had given me a sample scene between Mary and a door-to-door salesman written months before by novelist and comedy writer, Gail Parent, that totally captured the unique, vulnerable, trusting qualities that defined her character. After she wrote the scene, Gail disappeared on a long book tour and never came near the show again. Could she have been scared off by Norman's stipulated opening?

After Daniel, Jerry, and I finished writing the Bible (the long term stories) , we wrote two weeks of scripts -- 10 half-hour comedy soap scripts. The first two half hours during which the massacre, the flashing, and the impotency occur, served as the pilot. But that's not what sold the show. it was the waxy yellow build up on Mary's kitchen floor that sold the show. And Daniel Gregory Browne was responsible for writing that scene. Mary was in the kitchen with her sister Cathy listening to their favorite soap. When it was over Mary said:

 

MARY:

How do you like the floors? See that glow?

CATHY:

What glow? You mean that waxy yellow buildup?

MARY:

(PICKS UP CAN)

What do you mean? That can't be waxy yellow buildup. Read the can.

CATHY:

Mary, you're looking at a waxy yellow buildup.

MARY:

Iím not. I'm looking at a label that says that can't be.

CATHY:

Mary, I'm your sister; I'm telling you itís not waxy buildup

there ... it's a waxy buildup there!

MARY:

These people turn out a million cans a week. Who am I supposed to listen to, you? (SFX: WAIL OF A SIREN PASSING BY OUTSIDE)

CATHY:

Mary -- I'm telling you -- thatís a waxy yellow buildup.

MARY:

It does look a little yellow.

 

Joan Darling directed the pilot and assembled an unforgettable cast. All along we had written the part of Mary Hartman with one person in mind -- Louise Lasser. But Louise didn't want to do a soap. After all she'd starred in several of her ex-husband Woody Allen's memorable movies including Bananas, and Everything Youíve Always Wanted to Know About Sex, as well as Ingmar Bergman's acclaimed TV drama, The Lie. Besides, she said she "didn't get it" the concept, the character, the series.

But Louise Lasser was Mary Hartman i.e. Mary Hartman filtered through Louise's brilliant, fractured psyche. And Louise had more to do with creating the character than any of us. It was Louise who gave Mary that blank stare; that slow, earnest, deliberate way of speaking. She even invented her wardrobe: the puffy-sleeved little girl/housewife mini dress; the braided hairdo and bangs. And no, that wasn't her real hair. She kept her brown hair tightly bobby-pinned underneath a reddish blond wig.

I had a little difficulty relating to Louise. I don't think she completely trusted me. I don't think she trusted Norman, either. Norman and I were old enough to be her parents and both of us felt protective towards her as parents do with fragile offspring. She certainly brought out the Jewish mother in me. I kept wanting to hug her and tell her everything would be all right "and afterwards we'll all go to the House of Pancakes." Those were the pre-Haagen-Daz days when Louise was terribly thin and I nagged her to "eat, Louise, eat."

When she finally agreed to do the series, all the other characters fell in place due to Normanís and Joan Darling's fresh, offbeat casting.

Mary Kay Place was the perfect Loretta Haggers, Mary's best friend, a blend of dogged determination and sunny optimism in the face of every conceivable catastrophe we could dream up from her car crashing into a station wagon full of nuns on the way to Nashville causing her to become paralyzed to discovering that the baby she was carrying was not a fetus but a fibroid tumor which she insists on naming Charlie, Jr. regardless. Every adversity only added to her repertoire of Country/Western songs (for which we loved writing lyrics). Not for a moment did she doubt she would be a superstar, never once entertaining the thought that her talent was anything less than divinely inspired.

One of the reasons for her super confidence was the total devotion and support of her husband Charlie, her "good olí baby boy" her "precious bedtime toy" who believed in her as much as she believed in herself. Dan and Jerry and I saw Charlie as a real hunk, but in one of Norman's typical risk taking twists he went the other way and cast older, balding, bespectacled Graham Jarvas which turned out to be a terrific idea.

Mary's parents, Martha and George Shumway (Dodie Goodman and Philip Bruns) and her oversexed sister Cathy (Debralee Scott) kept Mary in a constant state of perplexed denial.

At first we couldn't decide the sex of Mary's only child, finally settling on a prepubescent girl. We gave her an ordinary name but Louise didn't like it. She thought for a moment and then breathed out another name ... "Heather." Of course. It was just right. A lovely, subtle, gentle name at total odds with the cranky brat who makes Mary's life as miserable as she can. Claudia Lamb played her to a "T."

Victor Kilian was the semi-senile, poignant Grandpa Larkin whom Mary related to better than anyone else in her family.

And that included her husband Tom played so organically by Greg Mullavey. Poor Greg, he was so good as the earnest breadwinner, dressed invariably in his Fernwood High varsity jacket and baseball cap, but he was totally overshadowed in the media and on the show by Louise.

Which I could relate to, totally. Because I felt Daniel, Jerry, and I were totally overshadowed and ignored, too. Even before the show went on the air a great deal of publicity had been generated in which we weren't even mentioned. It was Norman Lear's show all the way down the line. According to the media he had created the whole thing. Daniel, Jerry, and I were some "veteran soap writers" who had filled in the numbers.

That made me mad. So I challenged Norman about it, and the wonderful thing about Norman is that if you confront him with the truth he agrees with you. Heís not defensive; he doesn't try to blame someone else; he simply does the right thing -- or in this case, almost the right thing. A day or two after our meeting this full page ad appeared in the trades:

FIRST CAME THE WORD...

The "veteran soap writers" widely credited as having something to do with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman are in fact the very gifted, insightful and vastly experienced

ANN MARCUS

JERRY ADELMAN

DANIEL GREGORY BROWNE

and Program Consultant

OLIVER HAILEY

 

and the ad went on to mention the "brilliant directorial talents of Joan Darling and Jim Drake" and the actors.

So why did I say he "almost" did the right thing? Because even though he said we were talented, he failed to mention that we were co-creators of the show, having invented most of the characters and written the pilot. Am I quibbling? I don't think so. Credits are a writer's best friend. So much so that I blew a chance to give enough credit to Daniel Gregory Browne who was so important to the creation of the show. We shared the "created by" credit, but I also had another credit: Headwriter. Dan wanted another credit, too: From The Neck Down. I was too uptight to go for it, but I wish I had even though I don't think the Writers Guild would have allowed it.

Mary Hartman premiered on January 6, 1976. Ellis and I hosted a small party at the house to watch it. Jerry and Daniel were there as we lowered the lights and turned on the set. The corny theme music started and Dodie Goodman's voice could be heard from our collective childhoods calling out .. "Mary Hartman ... Mary Hartman!" We were off on the most exhilarating and exhausting experience of our lives.

We knew it was good, but we weren't prepared for the overwhelming reaction to it. MH2 wasn't just a hit, it was a mega-hit. In no time at all it became addictive, a "pop culture craze," as Newsweek put it, "a sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience." Everyone was talking about it or writing about it. Critics were comparing it to the best of Chekhov, Cervantes, James Joyce, John Updike and Ingmar Bergman. Mary Hartman stared out from the covers of every popular, glossy, high and low-brow periodical in the country. And inside there were long analytical pieces on the meaning of it all.

Ted Morgan in the NY Times Magazine wrote: "No longer merely a television program, MH2 has become a cultural event, in the same league as those other sociological signposts that culture-watchers and think tanks and Whither America specialists are always on the lookout for to help us explain ourselves." And he went on to describe an extension course at UCLA (not the only college course based on the show). "The participants, including dramatist Abby Mann, will discuss the Ďdreams and nightmares of the American people as they are reflected darkly, through the glass of Mary Hartman -- can a culture survive a nervous breakdown?...í"

The Times then quotes Harold Freed, the coordinator of the Mary Hartman course as seeing MH2 as an example of what he calls "The society of the Spectacle, in which television reduces all of life to a meaningless spectacle that can be turned on and off. The waxy buildup an Mary Hartman's kitchen floor, where stunned and defeated she sinks down again and again," said Freed, "becomes the equivalent of Sartrean nausea...Mary's uneasy feeling that things should be different is a form of existential awareness. She is a divine omen indicating misfortune."

Wow, I thought, so that's what we we're writing. And I thought we were just trying to be funny and tweak a few noses.

The more notoriously successful the show became, the more interested Norman became in it and the more time he spent with us. In the very beginning Dan and Jerry and I had been left pretty much on our own as we wrote the first weeks of scripts. But once the show was in production and especially after it enjoyed such a spectacular reception, Norman neglected his other shows to spend hours and hours and hours with us. This was both wonderful and terrible.

We had daily story conferences which were tape recorded and ran into 80 or more pages of transcripts keeping an army of typists at work through the night. But there were only three of us writing the five scripts each week and what with participating in marathon story meetings, reading the transcripts, writing the outlines and then the scripts we were always in a state of hysterical exhaustion. On the other hand Norman, who wasn't writing scripts or outlines, remained fresh as a daisy and very funny and inventive. He was especially fond of thinking up quirky ways to eliminate characters he didn't like. When he decided Coach Leroy Fedders should go, he browbeat us into coming up with a bizarre exit. But the light bulb went on over his head first.

That was the best part of those meetings, Norman acting out one of his ideas. This time it was The Death of Coach Fedders. First he set the scene: the coach has a bad cold; he's been home taking cold medications and sipping Jack Daniels but Mary insists he come over for a bowl of her homemade chicken soup. Warming up to the improvisation, Norman talked through a stuffy nose; he bent over the imaginary huge bowl of soup Mary places in front of him, first taking another Seconal and another swig of bourbon. As Mary and the coach's wife gossip, Norman-as-Leroy gets drowsier and drowsier unable to keep awake and unnoticed by Mary or his wife. Then Norman started reaching for the back of his shirt collar, trying to pull his head up out of the imaginary soup bowl. He almost does it, but his head keeps dropping lower and lower until it finally plops into the bowl of soup and he quietly drowns. We all applauded. That was one of the easiest scripts I ever wrote. All I did was describe Norman's inspired pantomime.

Other characters exited in bizarre ways, too. Eight-year-old evangelist Jimmy Joe Jeeter was electrocuted when a TV set fell into his bathtub; Mary's father George disappeared behind the blind spot in the rear view mirror of his car.

As the meetings grew longer (plus the transcripts) and the pressure to keep the show at as high a level as possible, I lobbied for another writer. Peggy Goldman, a young and gifted newcomer, was added to the team late in the season.

When Peggy joined us we were at the point in the series where Lorettaís career had taken off to such a degree that she had been invited to appear on The Dinah Shore Show. Our mission was to find some way for Loretta to self destruct on Dinah's show so that we could get her back to Fernwood and Mary's kitchen. What could she do that would guarantee the end of her career? What outrageous thing could happen?

We were sitting around the conference table, the tape recorder dangling from the ceiling recording every wild and crazy idea we could come up with, but nothing worked. Norman was as tapped out as the rest of us. Then Peggy mumbled something almost under her breath. Had I heard right? Was one of the words "anti-Semitic?"

Norman heard it, too, and his eyes lit up. "What did you say?" he asked almost pouncing on her. Peggy's voice dropped even lower. We all leaned toward her.

"Well, Dinah is Jewish and maybe Loretta can make some comment, totally innocent but anti-Semitic." Peggy sort of let it hang there. Norman loved it; we all loved it. And it worked. Loretta blows her career when she tells Dinah how much she appreciates the Jewish agents and promoters who have helped her and then gushes: "I can't believe those are the same people who killed our Lord."

As the first season -- all 124 episodes -- was nearing the end. Louise was wearing out. It was insane for her to do a completely new script five times a week for 26 weeks. But that was Louise's fault. She insisted on appearing in every episode. I tried to tell her how impossible it would be, that even in the common garden variety soaps lead actors appeared three times a week, max. And MH2 being a satirical comedy was much harder to do. Did she listen to me? No. Did Norman overrule her? Noooo. Come to think of it they were probably right because what would an episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman be without Mary Hartman? But that didn't make it possible. Yet gutsy Louise hung in -- even after The Incident.

I was in the office late one afternoon when the phone rang. it was an inquiring reporter wanting my reaction to Louise being busted a short time earlier by the Beverly Hills cops and jailed for disturbing the peace, possession of a controlled substance, and seemingly right out of a Mary Hartman script -- non-payment of two traffic tickets, one of them for jay walking! I denied everything, said there was some mistake and hung up. But it was all too true.

According to Louise, she had gone to a charity boutique to buy an antique dollhouse for her wardrobe mistress's birthday, but the clerk refused to accept her credit card. Louise, who had the flu and a temperature of 102 degrees refused to leave without the dollhouse. The clerk called the cops and the rest appeared in every major media outlet across the country.

But it wasn't all that serious. She only had a tiny bit of cocaine in her purse -- less than 80 milligrams or six dollars worth. She was placed on probation on condition she see her psychiatrist three times a week. (Actually that may have reduced the number of visits she was already making). So everything turned out to be all right although no one suggested going to the House of Pancakes afterwards.

But Louise's nerves were fraying. And things got kind of weird around the set, especially when Louise suggested to Dan and me that what happened to her should happen to Mary. If Louise was the chicken and Mary was the egg, we now knew which came first. Louise also suggested a way to end the first season that was very much in tune with both Mary and herself. Mary, she said, should have a nervous breakdown. She was right, of course, and we set about to make it happen.

Because of the enormous popularity of the show, we were able to get a commitment from David Susskind. So we had Mary chosen as America's Typical Consumer Housewife, a film crew document a typical week in her life, and sent her to New York to face a panel of experts on Susskind's show -- a feminist, a consumer advocate, and a media expert.

Mary arrives in New York to do the show and gets mugged losing her identification and credit cards so that when she tries to buy an antique dollhouse the clerk won't sell it to her. Just as in real life, she refuses to leave without it and winds up in jail. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Back in Fernwood Tom's lost his job and has become an alcoholic; Heather has brought home a joint from school, wants to wear a string bikini, platform shoes and join an all girl band; her mother is on a bus to Columbus with her recently discovered biological father, a Choctaw Indian who, along with 28 other Indians and a collapsible teepee, is going to stage a protest over fishing rights; and her sister Cathy has run off with a catholic priest. All that on top of everything else Mary's gone through from being held hostage in a Chinese laundry by the mass killer to her doomed affair with Sgt. Foley ... no wonder she flips out.

During the last episode of the season, Mary/Louise gave a bravura performance and went bonkers on The David Susskind Show. She ends up back in Fernwood in a hospital for the mentally challenged.

And Daniel, Jerry, and I were nominated for an Emmy.