The Most Audacious Soap Opera in History

Mary Hartman was mopping her kitchen floor, staring intently at the TV, when outside, sirens began to wail. Her neighbor Loretta barged through the door with terrible news: The family around the corner—along with their two pet goats and eight chickens—had been murdered. And that’s just the beginning of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, one of the most inventive and funny—yes, funny—television programs to grace the small screen.

The short-lived ’70s sitcom is remembered as a soap opera parody. But it was more than that: It was a sardonic take on modern life. The titular character, a sexually unfulfilled blue-collar suburban housewife from Fernwood, Ohio, played by Louise Lasser, is consumed by television, to the point of being numb to the world. She swallows advertising as wholesale truth, firmly believing TV commercials are there to improve her life. She’s so focused on finding the right homemaking products that when her neighbors are shot and killed, Mary is preoccupied instead with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor.

The show is populated with equally peculiar characters—Mary’s mother talks to plants, while her grandfather is a serial flasher. Her neighbor Loretta is a God-obsessed country-western singer. And the storylines are typical soap opera tropes—adultery, murder, intrigue—dressed in oddball black humor: At one point, a high school basketball coach drowns in a bowl of chicken soup; an 8-year-old evangelist is electrocuted when a television wire falls into the bathtub. The line between funny and dark is cheerfully blurry.

And at a time when television was in practically every home, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was doing something revolutionary: It was using television to criticize the medium itself.

It had been decades since June Cleaver entrenched herself as the archetypal TV homemaker. But by Mary Hartman’s time, things were different from the black-and-white 1950s. The mid-’70s overlapped with feminism’s second wave. A decade earlier, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had spoken to just how unfulfilled many housewives were. Since then, the women’s rights movement had made topics like reproductive rights, violence against women, and workplace inequalities part of everyday conversation. By 1975, TIME would name “American Women” its People of the Year.

In Hollywood, women were slowly getting more screen time and more diverse. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about an unmarried career woman, was groundbreaking. But the state of affairs behind the camera was less progressive; female directors and writers were just north of a novelty.

At the time, producer Norman Lear was enjoying a blessed decade, creating All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son, all of which scorched a path up the Nielsen ratings. Unlike the squeaky-clean sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, these new comedies didn’t shy away from addressing social issues like race and class inequality.

Now Lear was percolating on a project that would acknowledge women’s changing place in society. He’d been stewing for years on an idea for a late-night Monday-through-Friday soap opera. “I wanted to do a show about a woman who had been affected by the media, whose mind was shattered by television, magazines, radio—especially television,” he told the Archive of American Television in a video interview. “And I wanted it to be wild.” He wrote down a few ideas, including kicking off the series with a mass murder.

Oh, and he wanted it to be a comedy.

Lear approached a dozen writers, men and women alike, including the masterminds behind I Love Lucy. Most were appalled by the premise. “How are you going to get laughs from the slaughter of a family?” they asked. Finally, one of them understood the dark humor. Ann Marcus, who had credits with Dennis the Menace and Lassie, would become the show’s lead writer, helping to pen the first two pilots.

For the director, Lear tapped Joan Darling, a writer who’d been pitching a biopic about Israel’s first female prime minister. Darling was surprised to be asked. She had never directed before. But Lear handed her the two pilot scripts and told her to think about it. The writing was unlike anything Darling had ever read. “I don’t know what this is,” she recalled thinking in a recent interview with John D’Amico. “This is neither fish nor fowl.” Still, she took the job.

Darling spent the next eight weeks assembling a cast. At the center of it was 36-year-old Louise Lasser. The product of an upper-middle-class household in New York City, Lasser had racked up appearances on Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show and in Woody Allen’s Bananas. When she read for the part, Lear was elated. “I supplied the character,” Lear wrote in his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, “but Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset.”

The finished pilot was utterly fresh. The show had all the hallmarks of a soap opera—cheesy organ music, extreme close-ups—but the tone was distinct. There was no laugh track. And it wasn’t melodramatic either. The humor was bone dry. When Mary learns about the murder down the street, she asks, “What kind of a madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens?” She pauses, looking away blankly. “And the people. The people, of course.”

When the networks saw it, they immediately turned it down.

This kick in the teeth made headlines. Lear was a regular Emmy winner. If anyone could get away with something edgy, it would be him. But the Big Three— ABC, CBS, and NBC—wanted nothing to do with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. CBS, the very network that had fronted Lear $100,000 to make the pilots, thought the five-day-a-week format was a bad idea: “It’s tough enough to come up with 20 [episodes] a year for a prime-time series,” head of daytime programming Bud Grant told the Associated Press. “To come up with 260 is almost an impossible task.”

Today, Lear still doesn’t buy that excuse. “They were all doing well with the Jack Paars and the Johnny Carsons and so forth,” he says. “They didn’t get it. Or they didn’t think the American public would get it.”

Lear and Al Burton, who helped develop the show, believed that network executives were afraid of the program’s subversive tone and topics. After getting rebuked by the big guys, they hatched a plan to sneak it onto the air: They would take Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to the little guys.

Lear hit the road, traveling city by city to visit individual TV stations. Syndication had been around for years, but for someone of Lear’s stature to employ this tactic was unusual. Lear also flew people from 23 independent TV stations to his home in Brentwood in an effort to convince them to broadcast the show. The executives— attracted, perhaps, by the show’s inexpensive price tag combined with Lear’s clout—ate it up.

The unorthodox moves paid off. When it premiered in January 1976, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on more than 50 stations. By season’s end, that number had ballooned to 100. In its first six months, the show was on the covers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People, and The New York Times Magazine. The pilot earned Marcus and her cowriters an Emmy. Mary, the Times said, had become “the country’s most talked-about housewife,” and the viewers loved her.

In many ways, Mary Hartman was a caricature. Lasser’s homemade costume—a frumpy mini dress with puffy sleeves, topped with a wig of tightly braided pigtails—made her look like a life-size Raggedy Ann. But she also perfectly embodied a particular mid-’70s moment. As the old expectations for women started to fray, in their place was a vacuum, which Mary filled with TV. Mary has internalized commercials so fully that her emotions are muted. When she’s asked by police to communicate with the neighborhood murderer, she becomes obsessed with dissecting the flaws in the brand of walkie-talkie they hand her. The show, Lear says, was “mirroring the confused American housewife getting battered on all sides by the commerciality of our time. She was witness and subject to citizens becoming consumers.”

Underneath the psychodrama and dark humor, the show touched on a laundry list of taboo topics: exhibitionism, masturbation, menstruation, homosexuality, and anti-Semitism. But foremost it provided a withering commentary on the role TV had started to play in American lives. As Darling put it, Mary showed how “television would make us a nation of empty dead people.” And as Robert Craft wrote in the New York Review of Books, “No program has gone so far as this one in ridiculing the medium, as well as in warning of its power to reduce its habitués to followers of herd philosophies.”

The point was driven home when, at the end of the first season, Mary has a nervous breakdown and winds up in a psychiatric institution. There, as she and her fellow patients crowd around a television, Mary notices a small mechanism above the box: It’s the device used by Nielsen to measure television ratings. Even locked away, she can’t escape it.

As the show progressed, some of the networks’ concerns crystallized. To deliver five episodes a week, Mary Hartman was produced at a breakneck pace. The team shot a new episode nearly every day, and this quickly took its toll. There was so little free time that Lasser often couldn’t change out of her costume before her thrice-weekly psychiatrist visits. “So I have to walk down the street in Beverly Hills in my little Mary Hartman outfit, with the sleeves all puffed out and the gingham dress, and I think that everybody’s staring at me,” she told The New York Times.

As time wore on, Lasser found it more difficult to step away from her character. “I was gradually morphing into her,” she later said. The second season was brutal and dark, on and off screen. Mary spends two months in a psychiatric hospital, while Lasser, by her own admission, was also depressed and exhausted. So, after filming 325 episodes, she quit.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman lasted only two seasons, but the effects of its boundary pushing— on screen and behind the camera—still resonate. Soap operas have a long history of addressing social concerns—an All My Children character was an antiwar protestor during Vietnam; in the 1990s, General Hospital had an AIDS storyline. But in its critique of the medium itself, Mary Hartman went even further, raising questions that wouldn’t enter the mainstream for years to come. What is television doing to our brains? And to our culture? “I think it’s still ahead of its time,” Lasser says. “If you look at people’s top 10 lists, we’re never mentioned. It never bothered me. I think of it as a badge of honor.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t influence later shows. If you squint, you can see shades of Mary Hartman in the oddball soapiness of Twin Peaks; it’s in the uncomfortably funny DNA of Girls (on which Lasser has appeared three times). And you could argue that in a sense, its depiction of the blue-collar household paved the way for Roseanne.

It may have been both wholly of its time and somehow ahead of it, but Mary Hartman could not seem more relevant right now. The ubiquitous but quaintly stationary television has been eclipsed by a multiplying array of portable digital screens. Our dependence on technological distractions has surged accordingly. Mary Hartman asks us to take a pointedly critical—but at the same time not too serious—look at our relationship with media. There’s a lesson to be learned from a show that loved to hate television but created a cult of viewers who, night after night, couldn’t turn away.

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

7 Timeless Facts About Paul Rudd

Rich Fury, Getty Images
Rich Fury, Getty Images

Younger fans may know Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, one of the newest members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the actor has been a Hollywood mainstay for half his life.

Rudd's breakout role came in 1995’s Clueless, where he played Josh, Alicia Silverstone's charming love interest in Amy Heckerling's beloved spin on Jane Austen's Emma. In the 2000s, Rudd became better known for his comedic work when he starred in movies like Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Anchorman (2004), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), and I Love You, Man (2009).

It wasn’t until 2015 that Rudd stepped into the ever-growing world of superhero movies when he was cast as Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man, and became part of the MCU.

Rudd has proven he can take on any part, serious or goofy. More amazingly, he never seems to age. But in honor of (what is reportedly) his 50th birthday on April 6, here are some things you might not have known about the star.

1. Paul Rudd is technically Paul Rudnitzky.

Though Paul Rudd was born in Passaic, New Jersey, both of his parents hail from London—his father was from Edgware and his mother from Surbiton. Both of his parents were descendants of Jewish immigrants who moved to England from from Russia and Poland. Rudd’s last name was actually Rudnitzky, but it was changed by his grandfather.

2. His parents are second cousins.

In a 2017 episode of Finding Your Roots, Rudd learned that his parents were actually second cousins. Rudd responded to the discovery in typical comedic fashion: "Which explains why I have six nipples." He also wondered what that meant for his own family. "Does this make my son also my uncle?," he asked.

3. He loved comic books as a kid.

While Rudd did read Marvel Comics as a kid, he preferred Archie Comics and other funny stories. His English cousins would send him British comics, too, like Beano and Dandy, which he loved.

4. Rudd wanted to play Christian in Clueless. And Murray.

Clueless would have been a completely different movie if Rudd had been cast as the suave Christian instead of the cute older step-brother-turned-love-interest Josh. But before he was cast as Cher’s beau, he initially wanted the role of the “ringa ding kid” Christian.

"I thought Justin Walker’s character, Christian, was a really good part," Rudd told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. "It was a cool idea, something I’d never seen in a movie before—the cool gay kid. And then I asked to read for Donald Faison's part, because I thought he was kind of a funny hip-hop wannabe. I didn’t realize that the character was African-American.”

5. His role model is Paul Newman.

In a 2008 interview for Role Models, which he both co-wrote and starred in, Rudd was asked about his real-life role model. He answered Paul Newman, saying he admired the legendary actor because he gave a lot to the world before leaving it.

6. Before he was Ant-Man, he wanted to be Adam Ant.

In a 2011 interview with Grantland, Rudd talked about his teenage obsession with '80s English rocker Adam Ant. "Puberty hit me like a Mack truck, and my hair went from straight to curly overnight," Rudd explained. "But it was an easier pill to swallow because Adam Ant had curly hair. I used to ask my mom to try and shave my head on the sides to give me a receding hairline because Adam Ant had one. I didn’t know what a receding hairline was. I just thought he looked cool. She said, 'Absolutely not,' but I was used to that."

Ant wasn't the only musician Rudd tried to emulate. "[My mom] also shot me down when I asked if I could bleach just the top of my head like Howard Jones. Any other kid would’ve been like, 'F*** you, mom! I’m bleaching my hair.' I was too nice," he said.

7. Romeo + Juliet wasn’t Rudd's first go as a Shakespearean actor.

Yet another one of Rudd's iconic '90s roles was in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but it was far from the actor's first brush with Shakespeare. Rudd spent three years studying Jacobean theater in Oxford, England, and starred in a production of Twelfth Night. He was described by his director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, as having “emotional and intellectual volatility.” Hytner’s praise was a big deal, considering he was the director of London's National Theatre from 2003 until 2015.

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