Question: I caught the end of a re-run of a Hogan Family episode. It involved David giving a speech about his friend Rich, who had died the night before. I missed what happened to Rich and why he died. Can you help? L.F., Mississauga, Ont., Canada
Televisionary: Rich (Tom Hodges) died from complications related to AIDS and David Hogan (Jason Bateman) shot a documentary about his friend's final months in the "Best of Friends, Worst of Times" episode, which first aired in 1990. As traumatic as that death on the show was, though, L.F., it wasn't nearly as major a development as the death of Hogan mom Valerie (Valerie Harper) or the behind-the-scenes events preceding it.
As fans of the show will remember, The Hogan Family first debuted on NBC in 1986 as Valerie, a vehicle for former Rhoda star and Mary Tyler Moore Show co-star Harper. But Harper was a tough customer who'd already gone to the mat with CBS in her Rhoda days, winning a raise after refusing to show up for work. When she decided she deserved a bigger piece of the Valerie pie and tried the same strategy, execs from NBC and Lorimar, the company that produced the show, shot an episode without her, then compromised and got her back on the set... for a week. Then they canned her.
The fight went public and got ugly pretty quickly. Producers spread the word that Harper quit because she was jealous over Bateman's growing popularity. ("Jason was one of the first people I called when I learned I'd been fired," Harper said of the rumor in 1988, denying it to TV Guide. And two years later she called the tale "ridiculous," adding, "I'm the one who said, 'Get Jason in other situations besides the blonde of the week. Get some friends boy and girls in for Jason.' And you know what? They did it the next year, when I was fired.")
For his part, Bateman (who got the part after Kirk Cameron turned it down, by the way) was right in the middle of interviews for a TV Guide profile and, according to the reporter who wrote it, became remarkably tough to reach as the mess played out. (And who can blame him, really? At 19, it was hard enough to deal with stardom, I'm sure, never mind having to play public politics.) Eventually, he just said he hadn't been told anything about the situation.
As word of the fight and Harper's subsequent dismissal got out, jokes made the rounds about what the show would be called without its titular actress. Where's Valerie?, No Valerie and The New Valerie were suggested. One can assume those weren't serious attempts, but then those in charge decided on one nearly as clunky, Valerie's Family. Valerie herself was said to be "back East," and her character was eventually killed off in a car accident.
Enter Sandy Duncan, who, in keeping with the apparent rule that leading ladies had to go by their real names on the show, signed on as divorced aunt Sandy and took over the motherly duties. And the audience and press certainly didn't mind. TV Guide gave her a Cheer for coming on board, and two-thirds of the way through the following season the show had gained nearly 15 percent in the ratings. In June 1988, the producers excised all things Valerie and the show became The Hogan Family.
Duncan wanted everyone to know she didn't have a hand in Harper's departure, and merely took the opportunity to star in an already established show. "I made it clear that I did not want to be in the middle," she said a few months after the final name change. "I would only accept if it was absolutely sure that Valerie was not coming back. It's not true that the producers had me in the wings waiting while they got rid of Valerie." (Yeah, yeah I feel your skepticism from here. But she said the same thing under oath in a deposition given during the resulting Lorimar-Harper legal battle.)
In the end, it seemed to work out for all involved. Lorimar had its show, and sued Harper for breach of contract, whereupon she counter-sued and won, getting the last laugh. (Lorimar appealed, but settled out of court in an arrangement Harper's attorney termed "very, very satisfactory.")
The oddest part of all? Harper was warned of all this by whatever mysterious forces set up such coincidental portents. Just before she was sent packing by the show's producers, she starred in a CBS TV-movie about a woman who dropped her career to become a homemaker. The title? Drop-Out Mother.