Question: Settle an argument for me, please. Wasn't Bonnie Franklin on One Day at a Time TV's first main character to be a divorcée? I say yes and my sister says no. (And both of us are divorced, but don't cry for us since we're both much better off.) — Gail Z., Pelham, N.Y.
Televisionary: Well, Franklin's Ann Romano, who raised two daughters (Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli) on the CBS series from December 1975 to September 1984, was TV's first successful divorced mail lady, Gail. But technically the first was Lee Grant's swinging divorcée, Fay Stewart, who enjoyed a brief stay (September 1975 to June 1976) on NBC's schedule in the lusty sitcom Fay.
And One Day's producers were well aware their show, another from the Norman Lear laugh factory, carried some taint because Grant's show didn't perform. But from the beginning they worked hard to highlight the differences. "Our divorcée is not a chicly-turned-out woman of the world like Lee Grant, running off on cozy little weekends with Kevin McCarthy," co-creator Allan Manings stressed to TV Guide a few months after its debut. "Instead she is vulnerable and scared — like a woman stepping off a high diving board and suddenly realizing she doesn't know how to swim."
Now, all laughing at the trite analogy aside — trite analogies sell new shows to executives who want to pretend they're buying something new without venturing into the waters of the (gulp) truly new, after all — the man may have had a point. A mid-season replacement, the series was a big hit from the get-go, earning itself a number-12 spot in the Nielsens its first season out and staying in or around the top 10 for the rest of its run.
A key reason, for sure, was Franklin herself, who inhabited the role with a likable, sympathetic believability. Part of that may have come from the fact that she was divorced herself and could identify with Ann Romano's experiences. "We were very much in love," she said of her ex, actor/director Ron Sossi, in 1976. "But then I made this discovery. There was something I needed to do that had nothing to do with cooking meals and having babies. I developed this incredible guilt about not being your usual little housewife, and my sinuses started acting up."
She did some theater acting while married, and after her divorce she landed a role in Broadway's Applause, where she was spotted by Lear. It was then she realized she'd done the right thing by getting out of her marriage and putting all her energy onto the stage. "My sinuses stopped acting up. I felt alive," she said.
Part of the show's notoriety came, certainly, from its frank treatment of sexuality, which also earned it some flack from the easily offended. In the very first episode, Phillips's Julie called her mom "medieval" for not allowing her to go on a coed camping trip and added, "I'm surprised you don't make me wear a chastity belt." (Trust me, that was racy stuff for a teenager in 1975 — and Julie eventually said goodby to virginity when she ran off with a boy in a van.)On the other hand, though, One Day had its more traditional side, too. When Bertinelli's Barbara, the younger sister, was faced with her own chance at sex, producers polled students on three college campuses and, based on their responses, decided to have her just say no. That's not to say they were always above giving in to temptation once Bertinelli grew up and began to develop an avid male following, however. (The actress spent one entire episode in the bathtub, for example.) But they knew how to balance it to play to one segment of the fan base without offending the other.
"We know that our biggest audience — the one that brings us our high ratings — is the heartland of America, not New York and Los Angeles," co-executive producer Dick Bensfield said in 1981. "Those people in mid-America are very traditional and they have enjoyed watching Barbara grow up to be a sweet, well-behaved young woman, much like what they would like their own daughters to be. Our audience doesn't even mind the occasional cheesecake, since it is pretty innocent and not any more revealing than what they see every Saturday with their drum majorettes at school sports activities." (And you were thinking nobody behind the scenes gave much thought to this stuff?)For his part, even Pat Harrington's Schneider, the super, had a devoted, crush-ridden following, too. "I'm telling you, man, the ladies really love Schneider," the actor said in 1977. "[T]he women over 40 are telling me that Schneider is one hell of a bargain. They've been out there.... They're telling me, 'Schneider, you can leave your toolbox in my apartment anytime.'"
And it's worth noting that the ladies loved Schneider even though the character boasted such an expansive beer gut Harrington had to fake it by drinking as much water as he could before shooting a scene. ("I'm in a lotta trouble if there're more than two takes," he said.)
So take heart, all you fellas who can't quite, shall we say, fit into Hugh Jackman's jeans — just don't forget your toolbox.