Soap opera tales
Mary Kay Place goes from Mary Hartman to Armistead Maupin
By Matthew Hays
All eyes are on Mary Kay Place as she completes a take on "Further Tales of the City," the latest chapter in Armistead Maupin's wildly successful book series-cum-TV miniseries, currently shooting in Montreal. A consummate pro, Place belts out a line as a San Francisco gossip and high-society columnist.
Quebec director Pierre Gang (Sous-sol, "More Tales of the City") yells cut, and Place takes a break to talk to me. Looking at her demonstrative face, one might well be reminded of the various oddball characters she's portrayed. She was a maternal figure in the low-key '96 comedy Manny & Lo, kidnapped by two desperate runaways who ultimately become attached to their captive. She played an overzealous pro-lifer in Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne's wildly overlooked black comedy about abortion. She also brought to life a dotty company employee in Spike Jonze's auspicious directorial debut, last year's Being John Malkovich.
But me, I'm severely flashing back to the first time I ever laid eyes on Place. She played the crazy, spunky, down-home, country-and-western-singin' Loretta Haggers, the good ole gal-next-door to the namesake of the pivotal '70s cult TV series "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
Though the show is rarely broadcast now – Bravo [sic] was screening episodes a couple of years ago, but stopped doing so for some wacky reason – the program did leave an impression on numerous warped minds.
The original "Twin Peaks?"
Set in Fernwood, Ohio, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" – which premiered in '76, featured Louise Lasser in the lead role as a seriously neurotic housewife who constantly appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Surrounded by a philandering husband, bratty daughter, slutty sister, flasher grandfather and dumb-as-wood mother, among many others, the show – which was developed by TV legend Norman Lear – operated as a skewering of the soap opera genre and a commentary on American mores at once (it was a precursor to "Soap," which was more obvious in its satire).
"I was writing a pilot for Norman Lear at the time," Place recalls, who was then a staff writer for "Maude." "Norman told me about this new show, which he said was quite unusual. He showed me another part, but I wanted to try out for Loretta. There were lyrics to her country songs, so I wrote music for them, which I used during the audition."
Place knew from the beginning that the show was off the beaten path ("Oh, I felt that this was very different," she says). And the critics and public were quick to catch on, making the show a "Twin Peaks" of its day. The Village Voice dubbed it "the most disconcertingly funny show ever on TV." Since the networks refused to touch the series because of its sheer eccentricity, Lear's company simply syndicated the show to individual stations, meaning the writers were free of network interference. That meant plots got even loopier; in one season alone, Loretta managed to crash her car into a bus [sic] full of nuns, get faith healed after losing her ability to walk and give up her singing career for Christian evangelism. The show is getting its due this summer with a series of screenings in its honour at New York's prestigious Museum of Television and Radio (shows run until September 3 ).
Burning out in late night
"It was such a fabulously intense experience," says Place. "A normal sitcom does 45 pages a week, we did it every single day. Even though soaps do that, they don't do comedy and subtextual work the way that we were."
As might be expected, the gruelling schedule eventually took its toll on everyone involved, but especially Louise Lasser, who found the pressure of the series, coupled with her crumbling marriage to none other than Woody Allen [sic], too much to bear. She left the series in '77, and the show was renamed "Fernwood Forever," [sic] which continued for one additional season, sans Lasser.
"I was fried when it was over," says Place. "It was a fantastic experience, but every single person, including the janitor, needed to go to the rest home after that. I basically was unambitious for about 10 years. My body just shut down. I was too young to understand the idea of restoring your energy."