April 11, 1939 – Louise Lasser:
“I can‘t believe it. Loretta’s never gonna walk again. Tom and Mae and Mary all have venereal disease, not to mention Frank Garth, who I don’t even know. And we don’t have any calmatives in the house. It’s beginning to sound like a soap opera.“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Season One: Episode 026
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was one of the most original and groundbreaking shows on television, during a time when most series were anything but. It is truly demented and a must watch. The show’s title was the main character’s name stated twice because creator Norman Lear and the writers knew that important dialogue in a soap opera was always said twice.
Both a satire on daytime soaps and a comment on consumerism, the series takes place in Fernwood, Ohio, where housewife Mary Hartman dreams of the domestic perfection promised by magazines and television commercials. Instead, she finds herself suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: mass murders, low-flying airplanes, and waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen floor. She has an impotent husband, and brooding teenage daughter, batty parents, a slutty younger sister, plus there is Fernwood’s devious mayor (a perfect Dabney Coleman) and a set of identical twins played by the late, great Martin Mull.
It was very female-centric considering the era. The series was directed by Joan Darling, and the cast included Dody Goodman, Mary Kay Place, and Debralee Scott, all of them terrific…and the guest stars! The series writers were Gail Parent and Ann Marcus.
The series took on then-taboo social issues including domestic violence and featured one of televisions first gay kisses between live-in boyfriends Ed (Laurence Haddon) and Howard (Beeson Carroll) This was in 1976!
Like the soaps that it lampoons, the series features far-fetched, elaborate plotlines that included murders of major characters by electrocution in a bathtub, by drowning in chicken soup, and by being impaled on a pink artificial Christmas tree. There are coming-out stories, a three-way, and at least three different bisexual characters. There is even a same sex kiss between two women, 17 years before Roseanne.
The character Mary Hartman had a nationally televised nervous breakdown on The David Susskind Show at the end of the first season. After that, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she was delighted to be selected to be a participant in the Nielsen ratings research family.
At the time, Lear was producing five of the Top Ten shows on television. His shows pushed the cultural boundaries of television. But this one was way too controversial for any network in the 1970s, and so Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman became one of the first shows to be sold to local markets in syndication without a first run on a major network. In Los Angeles. where I lived at the time, it aired at 11:30pm, and I rarely missed it.
Mary Hartman was played with genius by Louise Lasser whose numbed-out response to conflict with an ability to suddenly snap out of one state of mind and swing to its opposite. Lesser left the show after the first year, but the rest of cast, carried on one more year in a new show, Forever Fernwood, adding gay icon, Tab Hunter.
”Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.”
During the program‘s run, Lasser appeared on the covers of Newsweek, People, and Rolling Stone. Lear stated that the casting of Lasser took less than a minute after producer Charles H. Joffe told him that there was only one person to play Mary Hartman. She was recently divorced from Woody Allen and she initially refused to role. Lear wrote that:
“…when she read a bit of the script for me, I all but cried for joy. Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset.“
Lasser was so hot that when Saturday Night Live was near the end of its first season, producer Lorne Michaels chose Lasser to host the program on July 24, 1976. It went so well that she became the first host to be banned from the program.
A few weeks earlier, she had been arrested in Los Angeles for possession of a small amount of cocaine and was sentenced to six months’ probation.
It is possible that Michaels thought the choice might be attractive to Lasser’s ex-husband and maybe he would agree to host the new late-night show. The musical guest that night was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who had done some music for Allen’s terrific 1973 comedy Sleeper; one sketch was a parody of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, a major influence on Allen’s work.
While performing her opening monologue, Lasser let it drop that Mary Hartman was having a nervous breakdown. She then began to ramble, mumbling about she was on live television and how distressing it was before sprinting to her dressing room where she began to sob. The Not-Ready-For-Primetime tried to cajole her back to the soundstage, but it was only Chevy Chase, in costume from an earlier sketch as the Land Shark, who could coax her back.
It was obvious to me that this blurring of lines between art and real life was intentional, yet Lasser’s other sketches felt odd and disjointed. Rehearsals had gone badly during the week, with Lasser refusing to perform with anyone in the cast except for Chase. In one sketch, Lasser is talking to a dog, and in a prerecorded piece she is trying to break up with someone but keeps forgetting her lines. Her episode, the 23rd of the series, closed with Lasser sitting on the studio floor talking about her recent problems. Her behavior led Michaels to keep this episode out of syndication.
Later, she said she was having an actual breakdown. She claims:
“They wrote sketches for me and I didn’t want to do them, because they were salacious — you know how Saturday Night Live is.”
She was very unhappy about a sketch where she and Gilda Radner would portray teenagers talking openly about sex. Lasser:
“I just couldn’t imagine performing it in front of my parents. No matter what, they won’t drop the sketch. So, at the last minute my manager said they’re not going to cut it. So, I said then I’m going to go. And he said, ‘Are you serious, you’re going to make an ultimatum out of this?’ And I said, ‘I think so’.“
Jane Curtin performed the sketch with Radner. Still, Lasser denies she was banned from the show, and that it was her manager, not Michaels, that the show pulled from SNL’s archives because “…he didn’t like me sitting there talking about it, cross-legged, on the floor, talking about getting arrested.”
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman producer Lear and co-star Mary Kay Place also hosted SNL during the run of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Born in New York City, Lasser is an only child. Her father wrote the successful Everyone’s Income Tax Guide paperback series books in the 1970s and 1980s. Her father was Jewish, her mother was not. Lasser embraced her Jewish heritage late in life. In 1964, Lasser’s mother committed suicide following the end of her marriage. Her father eventually also took his own life.
Lasser studied political science at Brandeis University. She sang in Greenwich Village coffee shops and bars and performed in revues before becoming Barbra Streisand‘s understudy in the Broadway musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962). She had a role on the soap opera The Doctors in 1962-63, and she found work in television commercials.
Lasser married Woody Allen in 1966 (she was 27; he was 31). They divorced in 1970. Yet, she appeared in his films Take The Money And Run (1969), Bananas (1971), and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). She also did a lot of the voice work for Allen’s spoof dubbing of the Japanese spy movie, What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966). Lasser:
“He [Allen] was “a tremendous influence, but it’s the influence to make me be me. I remember the day he said, ‘I do jokes…your comedy is attitude.'”
Her films include Such Good Friends (1971) and Slither (1973). On television, she shows up on Love, American Style (1971), The Bob Newhart Show (1972), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973), a television movie version of Ingmar Bergman‘s The Lie (1973).
She gives a shattering performance in Darren Aronofsky‘s Requiem For A Dream (2000) as Ellen Burstyn‘s character’s best friend.
Currently, Lasser lives in Manhattan, where runs her own Louise Lasser Acting Studio on the Upper East Side.
Tidbit: Emily Hampshire, Schitt’s Creek‘s sardonic Stevie Budd in the Emmy-winning series, is set to co-write, executive-produce, and star in a reboot of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.