June 11, 1977
Reprinted with permission.
What does it take for an Oklahoma cheerleader to make it from the football stadium to ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’?
Pluck, Luck and Careful Planning
By Dwight Whitney
A subtle electrical charge permeates her cramped, faintly shabby dressing room. Everything about this tiny cubicle with the “Welcome to Rule, Texas” sign on the wall testifies to intense activity. Its occupant, Mary Kay Place – Loretta Haggers in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” – is busy, busy, busy.
Everybody wants her. Her phone never stops ringing. The more incessant its jangle the cheerier Mary Kay appears to be. Makeup wants her. Wardrobe wants her. So do her producer, director, agents, hairdresser, dialogue coach and the newsie on the corner. Mary Kay, bless her accomodatin’ li’l heart, does what is asked and does it till she drops.
“I don’ mind, hon’,” she will say. “This is what I planned. I love doin’ what I’m doing, really I do.”
Only a few things about her come as a shock. The heavy Oklahoma accent, so much a part of Loretta, particularly when she’s on the make for husband Charlie (Baby Boy) Haggers, seems to evaporate. Instead of the bubble-headed Loretta, we have a bright, pleasant powerhouse of a 29-year-old, honed and razor-sharp.
She looks country, absolutely without guile,” says Norman Lear, who found her languishing in his own secretarial pool. “Look further and you know how wise she really is.”
There appears to be no show-biz area in which Mary Kay is not a winner. Her first record album, Tonite! At the Capri Lounge Loretta Haggers, was good enough to get a Grammy nomination last spring. Martin (Taxi Driver) Scorsese chose her from several dozen actresses who tested for the part of a ‘40’s band singer who makes love to Robert DeNiro in his forthcoming movie, New York, New York.
She was nominated for the Critics Circle Award and lost by a whisker to Mary Tyler Moore. She was the author, before “MHMH” pre-empted all of her time, of several scripts for top situation comedies. She is now at work on a movie script about a girl coming of age in a small Oklahoma town.
So how does a Tulsa, Okla., cheerleader – “I was your basic rah-rah,” she says – make it from the football stadium to the Halls of Lear in one large, improbable jump?
The daughter of the chairman of the University of Tulsa Fine Arts Department, she began life by resisting Fine Arts fiercely. “As a kid I liked movies better. I’d go see a musical, come home and re-create the entire show, gestures, moves, songs and all.”
Gradually her cheerleading took on a new look, running increasingly toward skits, playlets and songs whose tunes she made up. When she found people laughing at what she did, she knew what she had to do. “I said to m’self, ‘Mary Kay, hon’, now wouldn’t this be a great way to make a living’?”
Los Angeles was where it was happening so she started saving money immediately. She left Tulsa in June, 1969, in a VW so loaded with stuff she could hardly see the road. “With Mary Kay,” recalls her father, “there is no looking back. She kissed us goodbye and asked which way to the Oklahoma turnpike. I must say I consider it a privilege to be her father.”
At the University she had learned – “sort of” – what the TV camera was about. In Hollywood she might as well have taken up knitting for all the good it did her. She met refectin on every side. She finally got a job as a clerk-typist in Music Clearance at CBS.
“So, OK,” she says. “It got me around. I met people.”
She met Tim Conway. “’How’d y’like to be my secretary?’ he said. I said I’d never been one before. ‘That’s OK,’ he said, ‘I’ve never had one before’.”
When “The Tim Conway Show” had an early demise, she did other things, including playing a giant dog in a dog suit on a children’s show. Then one day she found herself back at CBS working for Norman Lear and “Maude.”
“Working for Norman meant I passed him in the hall a coupla times.” Mary Kay explains, “But I learned some big things. Like I didn’t want to be a production assistant. What I wanted to do was write.” She needed a partner so she sought out another tyro, Linda Bloodworth, a high-school English teacher in Watts and “a very funny lady, the kind I could relate to.”
The new collaborators aimed high – “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” They invented “a version of Loretta Haggers, very sweet and innocent soundin’, except that when Mary brings her into the station, instead of being cute she just steamrollers everybody, know what I mean, hon’?”
It didn’t sell. However, it got them an assignment to write a “M*A*S*H” episode that drew an Emmy nomination and transformed them into the most sought-after new scripters in town.
Then Lear heard her singing in the hall one day and decided she would be just right to play Gloria’s girl friend (again a version of Loretta) in an upcoming “All in the Family.” The part called for a country-western song “in the spirit” of Archie Bunker.
“I not only sang it,” says Mary Kay, “I wrote it, words, music and all. It was called ‘If Communism Comes Knockin’ at Your Door, Don’t Answer [It].”
When “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” came along, Lear tested her for Cathy, Mary’s young, callow , giddily promiscuous sister. “I hated the part,” Mary Kay says, “I wanted to play Loretta.”
So they let her read for that, too. The move made no real sense. The character was supposed to be married to a man of 43. Nothing happened until Lear suggested the heavy Okie accent. That worked. She got the part.
Then, people assumed Charlie would be recast. Not at all. The idea of a sweet young thing babying a grown man of 43, who also happened to be her husband, turned out to be one of the show’s real attention-getters. But Mary Kay is a Place, and therefore, just natural-born colorful. The family supplied her with, she says, a running script. Her grandmother, for instance, invariably rose at 5 A.M., “cleaning the house top to bottom,” her granddaughter says, “mowing a giant lawn and baking three pies for her bridge club. At which point she would sigh, say, ‘I’ve got to have a sinking spell,’ sit down and watch “As the World Turns.”
Her father was the world’s greatest tease, but nothing beat her mother, Gwen. Gwen was a phrasemonger. If Loretta says, “Oh, good gosh in Brazil” or “Hotter’n a depot stove,” odds are that Gwen said it first. Her mother had her limits, especially when the Big Tease was on. Once on a drive to Port Arthur, Texas, to visit grandparents, Gwen sat in the front seat making sandwiches while everybody else sang, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’s Paws” merrily and incessantly just to annoy her.
Gwen rolled down the window and soon was methodically tossing out bread, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, lettuce, knife and cutting board. “Brad,” she said amiably to her husband, as the salami described a graceful arc into the Texas ditch, “you can start looking for a restaurant.”
On “Mary Hartman,” Mary Kay, at ease with people, acted as a kind of lead pony to the skittish star, Louise Lasser. They got along fine. “We haven’t kissed or been madly in love,” Mary Kay says, “but there have been no traumas either. I like Louise a lot.”
As for Louise, it is remarkable that she stayed with the show as long as she did. It has been clear for a long time that she was tiring. As of July she will leave. In September, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” will become “Fernwood U.S.A.,” a kind of “MHMH” without MH.
Loretta will suffer a catastrophe that will drastically alter her life. The catastrophe turns out to be success as a singer, to which she and Charlie find it almost impossible to adjust. “People just don’t understand,” sighs Mary Kay, speaking for both herself and Loretta, “that success is not all roses.”
It’s obvious that she still gets some jollies out of the show. But what if she becomes the Oklahoma Garbo and wearies of playing movie star? Mary Kay raises an eyebrow. “Well, hon’, m’goal is to be whatever it is that I feel passionate about at the time I’m feeling it. Might even get married one day.
“I am not a women’s libber, but I live my life in a feminist way. I don’t feel I need a man in order to survive. I come from a family of very strong-out the window goes the mayonnaise-independent-out mustard-secure-out pickles, out cutting board-women aware of their self-worth.
“That’s the way I live my life. That’s the way I want to keep it.”