Rona Barrett’s Hollywood
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’s Mary Kay Place (“Loretta”): “I Really am Crazy & Corny & Silly!”
Can a “little girl” from Tulsa make good in Hollywood? Sure-if she can write songs like “If Communism Comes Knocking at Your Door, Don’t Answer It!” and do things like play a dog on a kiddie show! Here’s the lowdown on Mary’s “unusual” success story…
By Craig Modderno
Attention “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” fans! As out heroine suffers the trauma of facing a second season, we turn out attention to another one of Fernwood, Ohio’s favorite people—Mary Kay Place. As “Loretta Haggers,” Fernwood’s own ever-hopeful country and western superstar, Mary Kay represents on the screen the average girl’s dream come true. But off the screen, she’s hardly a “typical” girl…
With a father who is the head of the Art Department at the University of Tulsa and a mother who teaches grade school in the same town, Mary Kay could have easily become the All-American girl; the high school cheerleader (which she was) who marries the boy next door, has babies with the regularity of each winter snowfall, and spends her days engrossed in the soap opera sagas of people like Mary Hartman and friends.
Instead, Mary Kay Place has become a star. Not one of those insecure actresses who hides her insecurities behind a pushy press agent, a gaudy home, and an ego larger than an astronomical bank account, Mary Kay Place is a charming, witty woman with a rare combination of sex appeal and intelligence. She can be equally at ease talking to strangers at a supermarket as she is doing an interview in her modest, rented house in West Hollywood.
She greets visitors to her home with a hearty, down-to-earth welcome, apologizing for her dog’s barking. Casual to the point of fixing you fruit and tea for lunch, she exudes such warmth that you instantly want to file her under that rare category of “good people.”
But behind Mary Kay’s pixie manner and carefree personality is a multi-faceted talent constantly supported by an understanding of her true self. Though she will be 29 in September, Mary Kay has already won an Emmy nomination for the first script she wrote (a “M*A*S*H” episode she co-authored with Linda Bloodworth), completed a soon-to-be released album of original songs, acted in Hal Ashby’s forthcoming film Bound for Glory, and won the sought-after role of Robert DeNiro’s girlfriend in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming movie musical New York, New York.
Q. Why would a carefree country girl who still drives an old Maverick—and has a soft Okie twang—want to do something foolish like become an actress?
A. (Laughs) I just decided that since I had majored in radio and television and all that stuff in college and had always like acting and writing and being silly, then I might as well leave Tulsa and try to do all those things on a bigger level. I started saving money from the four jobs I had, got in my car, and came out here.
Q. Why would a single girl like yourself think she could just come to Hollywood and break into show business?
A. I guess I just had a lot of self-confidence. There was a man named John Ashley, who produced a lot of those “B” movies that played at drive-ins. He also starred in some of those “beach party” movies. He married Deborah Walley, who played Gidget in one of my favorite movies, Gidget Goes Hawaiian. He was originally from Tulsa and, one day, he came to my film class. So I did what a lot of people do. I pulled on his shirt sleeve and said: “Hi! I’m Mary Kay, and I’m graduating soon, and I’m coming to Hollywood, and can I call you?” He gave me the name of two people he knew in the business and they got me a job interview at CBS.
Q. Could any girl have gone in off the street and applied for the job?
A. Oh sure, But it was just a little more comfortable knowing that they were expecting me and I didn’t have to fight my way across the guards. Even though I had no typing skills, I found myself talking to a woman about a job as a secretary. I knew nothing about what secretaries are supposed to know. They had failed to tell me in school that I could break into the business by having legitimate secretarial skills. So I got a job for eighty dollars a week typing index cards. After going crazy doing that for nine months, I became a receptionist at CBS.
Q. I bet you met a lot of television stars that way…
A. The second day I was there I met Tim Conway. The phones were going haywire. It was lunch hour and I was trying to remember who was on what line and their names…and Tim got off the elevator and said: “Hmmmm, doing very well so far—and who are you?” We started talking and he was hilarious. Tim asked me to be his secretary. I said I’d never been one and he replied that he never had one before. After talking for a half hour, I discovered we had the same type of humor and I took the job.
Q. You worked for Tim for about seven months. What then?
A. I went to a local television station named KHJ and became head of publicity there. That seemed really funny to me because I had never done publicity in my life. Which gives you some indication of that station. I didn’t like the job because I didn’t get to write about projects that were interesting. I was having to write hypes on things that I thought were really quite terrible. Then they decided to do a children’s show and I became associate producer and a dog on the show.
Q. You dressed up as a dog?
A. I got into that dog outfit at five minutes to four p.m. every day. We taped live for an hour. Each day 35 children came in for the show. We had to get the prizes, write the scripts, book the kids, and operate in an atmosphere of complete insanity. And I would be sweating to death each day in this dog outfit. After the show was cancelled, I played a pregnant pollster on “The Amateur’s Guide to Love.” I became David Steinberg’s secretary for his summer CBS show and then got a job as a secretary to a writer on the “Maude” show.
Q. How did you get all those various jobs?
A. Once you work for a major company in Hollywood, you start meeting all these people. Then friends will tell you about jobs opening up and they’ll recommend you. I learned how to write and structure a script when I worked for the writer on “Maude.”
Q. How did you do that?
A. Well, you can’t help it—you’d have to be a complete doorknob not to learn something! (Laughs) I typed every single version of each rewrite of the script. Then I went to the meeting between Norman Lear (the producer of “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) and the cast and the writers. I didn’t really have to be there but I wanted to because each meeting taught me a little more about acting and directing. Norman would say to Bea Arthur: “I liked the way you said that line with that attitude, but it might be funnier if you had this attitude.” I would then see how toning a line with just a change of attitude in your mind would get a better laugh. I would also see what lines worked in rehearsal taping and when the actual show was taped. Norman would make cuts in the dialogue and action which improved the show immensely. He and the writers would discuss what worked and why certain things didn’t work. It was all valuable stuff that you couldn’t learn at school. You’d just have to be in the situation…
Q. Did you still want to be an actress at this point?
A. I’ve always wanted to be an actress. But I didn’t pursue it when I first came out here because I didn’t know that I wanted to starve to death to be one. I did not care about being a star. I figured if I was supposed to act, then some way I would end up acting. There’s too much to learn about the business to just blindly go in and say I want to be an actress. I realized that there were 900,000 people getting off the bus every day in this town that want to be actors or actresses and to just join that crowd is stupid.
Q. How did you get to sing one of your songs on “All in the Family?”
A. I had written a song called “If Communism Comes Knocking at Your Door, Don’t Answer It.” A friend of mine named Patty Weaver who is now in “Days of Our Lives,” and I used to go to lunch all the time and sing songs. One day we were eating and singing and some of the writers of “All in the Family” heard us singing. They loved the song and, just when we finished singing, Norman Lear happened to come by. Norman loved the song and asked us if we’d sing it on the show.
Q. So did Norman Lear remember you when he was casting “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman?”
A. Al Burton, Norman’s partner came to me and asked if I wanted to read for the part of Cathy, Mary’s sister. They had already put an offer to somebody for the part of Loretta. When I read the script, I knew I was perfect for the part of Loretta. I had been exposed to country western music for years. I had been playing versions of Loretta since I was in second grade.
Q. How much are you really like Loretta?
A. Well, not much, as it turns out. At least literally. The character relates to me attitude wise more than anything else. I mean, I am really crazy and corny and silly and I believe in God and I’m religious in my own personal way just like Loretta.
Q. What kind of changes would you like to see in Loretta?
A. She is a little less bright than I’d like her to be. I know a million Lorettas and they’re all smarter than the one I portray. No matter what happens to Loretta, she keeps believing that everything will work out just fine. She’s a nice character to play.
Q. Are you surprised that some people look at her as a sex symbol?
A. Yes! (Laughs)
Q. How does that make you feel?
A. I don’t relate to that at all. Whenever Loretta wears a cute nightie, she thinks it’s kinda cute and frilly to sleep in. She’s not calculating enough to think that it’s sexy. Loretta is totally naïve when it comes to sex.
Q. When you first started doing “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” how did you think the public would respond to the show?
A. I thought that it was definitely a terrific project. I knew it would get on the air eventually, even if the show had to be syndicated. But I didn’t have any notion that it was going to be this big of a hit. I just thought that there would be a certain element of people who would think it was hilarious because it was very funny—and it was very different.
Q. How has the success of the show affected your personal life?
A. The success of the show has allowed me to make a living at what I enjoy doing. My personal life is changed in the sense that I am recognized—which has never happened to me before. I don’t know how to respond to the recognition. The people are really nice, but I get embarrassed.
Q. Has that recognition kept you from doing anything that you enjoyed doing?
A. I used to enjoy going to Rexall for my Carnation ice cream sandwich. I’d be in jogging pants with my hair in a pony tail on top of my head wearing a sweatshirt and looked like a fool. Now I get people that stop me and go: “You’re Loretta and look at you! You’re like one of us, you’re a creep!” and I go, “Yeah, I am!”
Q. Now here’s the question you’ve been waiting for—what’s it really like working with Louise Lasser?
A. Oh, she’s a hoot. A dear, dear woman. And if you try to trick me into saying something on that thing in Beverly Hills, I’ll sock you in the chops!
Q. Do you go out with many men?
A. Well, I have a million men friends. I have two relationships that are important to me. They are two totally different relationships. Both are at the semi-serious stage but neither are at the point of marriage. Most of the men I have dated are still my friends. I just don’t have much time now to date.
Q. What are your future plans?
A. I’m writing a film script now which is about a young girl coming of age. I’d like to keep on writing and singing. For me, singing is the most fulfilling thing that I can do. Anything interesting about my singing is the fact that it comes from my passion for it. I can stay on pitch and carry a tune but I don’t have a melodic voice that melts butter. But Leon Russell doesn’t have a voice that melts butter and neither do most of your rock stars. I also really look forward to doing “Mary Hartman” next year.
Q. What advice would you give a girl in a small town who wants to become an actress?
A. First, I’d ask them what they wanted to do and if they really wanted to be in this business in some way or another. Then I’d tell them to get an education, save your money so you have enough to survive on when you come to Los Angeles, and start packing your bags. When you get out here, try and get a job in the industry no matter what it is—you’ve got to get in the front door. Don’t go out to lunch—get it in the studio commissary and sit in the studios and watch what’s happening. By all means, don’t be intimidated by anyone in the business. They’re all just plain old folks at heart!