Monday, May 9, 2011

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Obituaries

It's been a period of significant deaths, and I have a confession to make. There were two death announcements last week which rocked me to the core, about which I felt real, personal sadness. Don't judge me too harshly when I reveal that neither of those deaths were Bin Ladin nor Arthur Laurents (though I did write a bit about the latter on Friday, because he was someone I respected).

Nope, the two deaths which really shook me up last week were for two of my favorite actresses. The first was known primarily for her comedic work, though I remember her vividly for a dramatic performance, and the other was an acclaimed dramatic actress who could turn a phrase in such a way as to make you howl with laughter amidst your tears.

Marian Mercer


This statuesque (5'9") blond was a skilled classical actress, a singer, and was the go-to gal for sketch comedians for a time. She was a recurring regular on many variety shows during the 70s; Dean Martin, Jonathan Winters, Andy Williams, Dom DeLuise, and Johnny Carson all called upon her frequently when they needed a female foil. She came to television after a successful stage career, which began in the choruses of Greenwillow and Fiorello . She received her first recognition when she took over the Off-Broadway role created by Eileen Brennan in Little Mary Sunshine. She was awarded the Tony for her supporting performance in the original Promises, Promises, opposite Jerry Orbach.

(That role, the tipsy barfly Marge MacDougall, is the one to play to win awards, as Katie Finneran also earned the Tony in the recent revival, playing the same role.) Our Marian received good notices for her leading performance in the unsuccessful revival of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, which brought Sammy Davis, Jr. back to Broadway, and in which she portrayed all four leading female characters.

Mercer made her share of feature films, notably Nine To Five and John and Mary, but her best work was on television. In addition to the variety gigs mentioned above, she appeared on dozens of sitcoms. She was a regular player on the soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and remained with the program when star Louise Lasser bolted and the show became Fernwood Tonight. She was a regular on the sitcom-that-wouldn't-die, It's A Living, which ran for two seasons on ABC in the early 80s, then survived in syndication (as Making A Living) another six years.

During this active period in her career, she appeared in a Beverly Hills stage production of Miss Margarida's Way, playing an ultra-strict teacher in a raucous public school. The audience members were treated as the students, and Mercer's improvised interactions with them provided the hilarity. I was lucky enough to see this production, and can verify that Marian thought quickly on her feet and was a real livewire in performance.

In addition to so many of her comic performances, I will remember Mercer for her solid dramatic work on St. Elsewhere. In 1983, she portrayed the charismatic Eve Leighton, a heart patient waiting for, and then receiving, a transplant; her nine episode story arc served as the core of the show for almost half the season. One of the most memorable moments in dramatic television occurred in the episode "Newheart," in which one of the hospital's doctors, played by David Morse, received word that his wife died in an accident, and her heart was being used as the transplant organ. The episode ended with Morse wordlessly slipping into the post-operative ICU and gingerly listening to his dead wife's heart pumping in Mercer's chest.

When Marian's character died a few episodes later, it was a crushing blow to the audience and a dramatic highpoint of the series.

Marian Mercer died in April from complications from Alzheimer's.

Just like Mercer, this classy actress also began Off-Broadway, made the jump to Broadway and a Tony, then found success on television:

Sada Thompson


This woman's death hit me particularly hard, as her work in a TV series of the late 70s came at a seminal moment in my own life. More on that in a mo'. Our gal graduated from Carnegie Mellon in the 50s and immediately began winning raves as a stage actress. Ivanov, The Misanthrope, and the O'Neill opus Mourning Becomes Electra were all graced by her performances.

She played Albee (American Dream), Beckett (Happy Days), Shaw (Arms and the Man), Coward (Hay Fever), Moliere (Tartuffe) and even Dylan Thomas, appearing in his Under Milkwood under his direction. It was her scorching performance in the Off-Broadway production of Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds which accelerated the career of both herself and the play. Zindel won the Pulitzer, Thompson won the Obie, and Paul Newman snatched the film rights for his wife, Joanne Woodward. (Though laced with severely sardonic humor, the play is not a happy one, and while it affords its leading actress a tour de force, it is difficult to enjoy. In 1978, Shelley Winters brought the play to Broadway, where it lasted only two weeks. But back to our star...)

Sada followed up her triumph in ...Marigolds with another huge success. In 1971, she appeared on Broadway in George Furth's Twigs, in which she played an elderly woman and all three of her daughters. Once again our heroine brought attention to a showy female part; Carol Burnett snagged the rights and turned it into a TV film starring herself. But Thompson carried home the Tony for her performance, and headed to Hollywood. She landed a co-starring role on All in the Family, only to be replaced by Betty Garrett when she could not come to agreement with producer Norman Lear about her character. No worries, she was now free to take the role for which she is best remembered, Kate Lawrence in Family.

Family was produced by the Spelling-Goldberg TV factory, which was at the time providing ABC with a number of hit shows. Family was never one of those; its ratings were always marginal, but the network renewed the series in order to keep their hitmakers happy. Aaron Spelling considered the show the gem of his empire (his other shows were populist rubbish such as Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat,Fantasy Island, and the like). Family had strong credentials, as it was co-produced by Mike Nichols, in a rare television venture, and created by Jay Presson Allen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). Sada Thompson played the matriarch of an upper-middle class family in Pasadena, CA, and her performance anchored the show. Her work was understated in the extreme, so much so that some might have thought there was no acting going on at all. I was deeply attracted to the show. The make-up of the family was identical to my own, with a working father, stay-at-home mother, an older and a younger daughter, with a teen aged son in between. Family took a look at many of the social issues of the day, personalizing them in a non-preachy way, and its finest moments were the quiet, intimate glimpses of a normal suburban family. My own family, as similar as it was to the Lawrence clan, was stumbling through my mother's long difficult fight with cancer at the time, and somehow, Thompson's down-to-earth performance as Kate brought me a lot of comfort.

And of course, the performances were strong all around. Sada was nominated repeatedly for the Emmy, winning in 1978. Gary Frank as her son and Kristy McNichol as the youngest daughter also scooped up Emmys, while James Broderick (now known as Matthew's father), John Rubinstein (plucked from Broadway's Pippin to play the philandering son-in-law) and Meredith Baxter (then Birney) also received nods during the show's 86 episode run.

After Family, Thompson appeared as the titular character in the TV film The McMartin Trial, which concerned the accusations of abuse hurled at a pre-school teacher. She received another Emmy nod (she was nominated a total of nine times for her various television appearances), and in 1990, she was teamed with Richard Thomas and Sylvia Sydney for a short, 50 minute PBS playlet, Andre's Mother.

This Terence McNally teleplay concerned the survivors left behind by an AIDS victim, and is one of McNally's most personal works. That film is available on DVD, as are two more stage performances of Thompson's. Coincidentally, they are both Thornton Wilder plays. In 1977, while she was starring in Family, Sada joined an all-star cast in the NBC production of Our Town, back when networks produced that kind of high quality event. The various inhabitants of Grovers Corners included Barbara Bel Geddes, Ned Beatty, Charlotte Rae, Jon Cryer, John Houseman, and Robby Benson, playing Sada's son. Hal Holbrook narrated the proceedings as the Stagemanager. In addition, there is a DVD available of Thompson's appearance at the Old Globe Theatre, as the harried Mrs. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.

Sada Thompson never became a household name, and was probably lucky to stumble upon a project such as Family. As you can see from the clip below, she was heavier than most TV stars, and I imagine she was a smoker, as her teeth are certainly not Movie Star Quality (the fact that she died last week from lung disease reinforces that assumption). In this scene from the first episode of the series, Thompson and Broderick discuss their eldest daughter Nancy's crumbling marriage; this sequence is much more explosive than the majority of the show's scenes . But it's a good example of the clear, uncluttered, intimate work Sada Thompson and her costars were doing on Family.