Question: We are trying to find out the name of the sitcom that had a character named Monroe in it. I think it was in an apartment setting, but I can find nothing on it. Could you please help? — Sue W., Muskegon, Mich.
Televisionary: That I could, Sue. You're thinking of ABC's Too Close For Comfort, which starred late Mary Tyler Moore Show veteran Ted Knight as San Francisco cartoonist Henry Rush. Henry and wife Muriel (Nancy Dussault), lived in a two-apartment townhouse — right over a pad occupied by the couple's two young daughters (hence the title). Based on the British series Keep It in the Family, Too Close debuted in November 1980 and stayed on the network until September 1983. It ran in first-run syndication from January 1984 to September 1985, then returned the following April as The Ted Knight Show, ceasing production in 1986 after Knight lost his battle with cancer and passed away.
'Twas J.M. J. Bullock (now known as Jim) who played the wacky Monroe Ficus, pal to Rush's daughter Sara (Lydia Cornell), who attended San Francisco State College with him. Many fans remember Monroe as a gay character. However, as Bullock, who came out publicly after the series was off the air, said recently in an interview, the producers tried to color him otherwise. The network was "getting all kinds of fan letters asking if Monroe was gay" despite episodes that showed him dating women, said the actor, who later became a Hollywood Squares regular and is now voicing Showtime's Queer Duck. "It didn't matter what color they painted it, it didn't disguise the reality. People tend to remember it as a gay part. A gay part played by an openly gay actor. It wasn't that way at all."
Bullock was not alone in the identity crisis department. Before being named Too Close star, Knight suffered recognition problems of a different sort. It seems he fell victim to the malady suffered by any actor who's ever done too good a job of creating a unique character. After turning in absolutely hilarious work on the Tyler Moore show, the actor had a heck of a time convincing the industry he wasn't WJM-TV news anchor Ted Baxter.
"[A] lot of people didn't seem to think I could do anything else," Knight, whose first incarnation of The Ted Knight Show ran for only six episodes in 1978, told TV Guide in 1981. "Sometimes when I got a little lonely or depressed I would go down to the supermarket in hopes of being recognized. I would squeeze a few melons and look around surreptitiously. Raise my voice if I had to [in full Baxter cry]: 'Are these fresh?'"
Too Close came along at the right time, then, and with no small amount of help from Cornell and Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who played Jackie, the sister who provided a pragmatic contrast to sex kitten Sara. The show, working in the vein of Three's Company (its lead-in for the first two seasons), mined a lot of laughs from network-approved naughtiness. "The flat look is in," the not-so-curvy Jackie said to her more generously endowed sister in one typical exchange. "Not that far in," replied Sara.
"Sometimes they put in lines that are really icky," Cornell said of such gags in 1981. "I get so upset when Sara has to put her sister down about being flat-chested. That stuff is kind of offensive."
Kind of? Such humor was anathema to the stage-trained Dussault, who in 1982 accused the show's writers of "always going for the easy laughs, always going for what they think the network wants." And that's nothing compared with what she had to say about working with acting newcomers like Cornell. "I get aggravated," she said. "It makes the work harder if you're saying lines with someone who's not adept at it. But you also worry about yourself, how you're going to look, because they can bring you down. I hate dealing with these people. I want to work with my peers."
Such carping didn't sit well with Too Close executive producer Arne Sultan, who provided a pragmatism of his own to counter Dussault's artistic outrage. "When the show is doing well and people in your cast are complaining about scripts, it's annoying," he said. Given that his show tied Happy Days for 15th place in its first season and was neck and neck with The Dukes of Hazzard for number six the next time around, he had a point.