Question: Please help me shut my sister up. I say we never saw Carlton the doorman on Rhoda, but she says he was seen in the final episode. Who's right? Whoever loses this one has to host the family Christmas dinner this year. Thank you. — Drew A., Dunwoody, Ga.

Televisionary: Jeez, Drew, don't you worry family members might find out how you guys feel about hosting the annual holiday get-together? Or do you figure so few people read my column there's little chance of that happening? Oh, well — if I just keep writing, I won't have time to feel insulted.

No, we never saw Carlton, Rhoda Morganstern Gerard's slacker (before there was such a term) doorman on the hit Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off, which ran on CBS from September 1974 to December 1978. He was heard only through Rhoda's intercom. Things might have been different if late comedian Foster Brooks had accepted the role when offered it, late Rhoda co-creator Lorenzo Music told TV Guide in 1976. But Brooks turned it down and Music himself, who would later go on to voice Garfield the cat and several other animated characters, ended up playing the famed "Carlton Your Doorman."

"Mostly he just happened," Music, who died last year of lung cancer, said of the character. "The never-seeing-him bit was just a feeling that developed.... [W]e were still not cast when we started production on Rhoda in July 1974. It was no big deal; we only needed him to work the last couple of days anyway. I started reading Carlton in rehearsal; Bob Moore, the director, who is also an actor, did the other bit parts. If it had been the other way around Bob might have been playing Carlton. At any rate it felt right. It got laughs. It worked. And suddenly I was an 'actor,' which is what I came to Hollywood 18 years ago to be."

Perhaps one of the reasons we never actually saw Music as Carlton is that he looked nothing like his vision of the character. In his late 30s by the time the character became popular, Music was short and balding with dark hair and a moustache. Carlton, he said, was a heavy drinker in his 20s, blond and thin, with droopy eyelids, messy hair and sloping shoulders.

One thing's for certain. Neither Music nor co-creator Dave Davis were prepared for how popular Carlton would prove to be. Viewers who wanted to know more about him sent enough mail to warrant creating a fan club and Music's secretary was given the task of answering Carlton's letters and sending out membership cards. (Alas, Carlton wasn't popular enough to spell success for "Who Is It," a music-laden monologue of famous Carlton sayings that clocked its share of radio airplay. It sold very few copies.)

The unseen Carlton was just one of the things Rhoda's creators got right when the show first launched. "We doubt there's ever been a more successful spinoff in TV history," TV Guide reviewer Cleveland Amory gushed in its first season. Viewers agreed from the start. After winning three Emmys in her four years playing the character on the now legendary Tyler Moore series, Valerie Harper enjoyed quite a following. So much so that when she moved to her own show, a sizable audience came with her. When the terminally single Rhoda, who generated laugh after laugh complaining about her lack of a man to Mary, wed new love Joe Gerard David Groh in a special hour-long episode, 50 million people tuned in.

Then the problems started. Or, at least, those behind the scenes thought they did. "I guess we had the conceit that we could do a show about marriage that was different," Executive Producer Jim Brooks said at the time. "We couldn't. We just succeeded in making Rhoda dull." Producer Charlotte Ross agreed. "We all suddenly realized we were getting bored with our show," she said. "Maybe the audience wasn't bored — yet — but we figured that at some time in the future it was inevitable the way we were going. Everything was so nice for our Rhoda in her happily married life."

The producers were bored, maybe, but Rhoda was still a top-20 show, even after the introduction of true love. And back then, when creative standards could still win out over the bottom line — just you try making major changes to a successful show today simply because you're bored — the network listened, so Joe and Rhoda separated, then divorced. "It was incredible," Ross said after she and the other producers sat down to hash out concepts for a newly single Rhoda. "In a single afternoon, we came up with 12 wonderful ideas, whereas it had taken us days to think up a single story for the happily married Rhoda. The old wonderful Rhoda was back — insecure, vulnerable, conflicted, yet fighting back and mining humor out of her underdog situation."

Problem was, the laughs weren't dependable. The new Rhoda was just as likely to play like a soap opera as it was a comedy. Joe was eventually shuffled out of the show altogether and new characters Sally (Anne Meara) and Gary (Ron Silver) were added to give divorcee Rhoda new playmates. When those changes didn't quite click, either, Rhoda returned for the 1977-78 season with a new job and more new friends.

When all was said and done, the magic still failed to return, so Rhoda didn't, either. By the end of '78, the show was as unseen as its doorman.