Question: It's argument time again. My sister says the guy who played Mel was the only cast member to make the jump from the movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to the TV version. I say some of the other waitresses were in the movie, too. Am I right? Thank you much for your time. Paul W., Durham, N.C.
Televisionary: You're correct, Paul. However, it's worth noting that for the first three seasons of the CBS sitcom Alice, which ran from August 1976 to July 1985, your sister was.
Vic Tayback, who played Mel's Diner owner and cook Mel Sharples in the 1974 Martin Scorsese film was initially the only player to show up in the network version. Linda Lavin portrayed Alice Hyatt (a role that won Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Academy Award) who moved to Phoenix, Ariz. to work as a singer but ended up putting food on the table by working as a waitress on the small screen. Polly Holliday stepped in as diner veteran Flo "Kiss My Grits" Castleberry and Beth Howland played waitress Vera Gorman.
In 1980, after the character of Flo proved popular with the audience, CBS gave Holliday her own spin-off, called, in the spirit of its parent series, Flo. Diane Ladd, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work as Flo in the film it gets a little complicated so I can see why you guys mixed it up a bit came on board as waitress Belle Dupree. (This is where your sister scores some points).
Unfortunately for both Ladd and Flo, the short-order spirit of Alice came into play a bit too heavily. Ladd lasted just a year on the series her departure was termed a "mutual decision" and Holliday's spin-off, which related Flo's adventures running a roadhouse in her hometown of Cowntown, Tex., lasted only a little more than that.
Despite her short-lived series, Flo's popularity was another example of a network sitcom that started with supporting players who ended up being more interesting than the title character. (Don't believe it happens much? Quick... who's your favorite Will & Grace character? I'm betting it's Jack or Karen.)
In addition to the too-big-for-Phoenix Flo, Tayback's Mel quickly moved from the boss who gave Alice and the other waitresses a hard time to a focal point of the show. And much of that shift can be attributed not only to Mel's popularity, but also to the hard-to-contain personality of the man who played him. "In the beginning, all I was doing was yelling and screaming at the girls," Tayback told TV Guide in 1978. "Finally I said to the producer, 'Get me off this one note. Don't have me screaming all the time. Either I'll have a heart attack or I'll fire all the girls.'"
The tough Brooklyn native, former bank teller and Kelly Girl (yes, those things can all go together after being fired from his teller job he worked for Kelly as a bank-teller temp) had a definite real-world quality about him, perhaps stemming from the fact that he'd been around the block a few times before pursuing acting. As a young man, he'd tried to fake his way into the Army during the Korean War and then did four years in the Navy a stint he was reminded of every time he sat down since he had an inch-long needle sliver permanently lodged in his buttock from a Navy antibiotic shot gone bad. (One would imagine that with that kind of permanent souvenir traveling around with him, the gruff Mel act probably wasn't much of a stretch to pull off.)
That quality came out in the role and fans loved Mel (and Tayback) for it. So did his castmates, most notably kid actor Philip McKeon (brother to Facts of Life trouper Nancy), who'd spent half his young life playing Alice's son Tommy by the time he sat down for an interview in 1984. "When my dad was back in New York, Vic would take us to Dodgers games and horseback riding, and when I got older, he got me interested in going to the track and gambling," he said.
But Tayback certainly had no problem showing his softer side before Alice was to tape its final episode. "It gets to you," the big man said of working on the set for the last time. "This afternoon, during the [dress rehearsal], Beth began to cry, and I said 'You sissy.' She laughed and said, 'You're a sissy, too.' She was right. I was crying."
As our magazine pointed out then, the only ones not crying at the final taping were the studio accountants. Mel's Diner was sold in the show's final episode and so was its set. One of the buyers was Columbia Pictures TV, which planned to use some of the furnishings in an upcoming production.
Hey, as I've written in this space before why do you think they call it show business?