How Norman Lear Turned Broadway Kid Actors Into Household Names

Seth Rudetsky   How Norman Lear Turned Broadway Kid Actors Into Household Names
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares the stories of how the child stars of One Day at a Time, The Facts of Life, All in the Family, and more got their gigs.

I am still adjusting to the schedule of doing Stars In The House every day as we continue to raise awareness and money for The Actors Fund. Hence, my column is on the late side... but, I have lots of exciting things to tell you!

My new podcast Back to School is all about high school and this week I have Oscar winner Allison Janney as my guest. What I didn’t know was that she missed her first year of college because of a horrific accident! It was the end of her senior year and there was a huge party in someone’s backyard. They were playing a game where you dance with a partner and the girls have balloons around their ankles that the other couples try to pop. Well, Allison claims she was cheating because she’s so competitive (!) and tied the balloon around her knees instead of her ankle, making them harder to pop. One of the other boys stepped on her long dress by accident and it ripped. She thought the dress was going to come off so she went to run into the house…and she ran through a plate glass window!

in <i>9 to 5</i>
Allison Janney in 9 to 5 Joan Marcus

What’s even crazier is that even then she was an actor at heart. She told me she felt like she was in a movie and the role called for her to turn around, scream and then faint. So that’s exactly what she did! There’s a lot more to the story, but it obviously turned out okay because when she finally went to Kenyon College, her arrival coincided with alumni Paul Newman christening the new theatre. That’s where she met Paul and Joann Woodward, who encouraged her to come to New York and thus started her acting career! Listen to the whole podcast (and my other ones with Tina Fey, Michael Urie, Vanessa Williams and Sean Hayes) here.

Last night we hosted a Stars In The House with child stars from the late ’70s/early ’80s with Glenn Scarpelli and Mackenzie Phillips from the original One Day At A Time, Danielle Brisebois from All In The Family, Mindy Cohn from The Facts of Life, and Jill Whelan from The Love Boat. So many interesting stories of how they got their jobs!

Glenn was 10 years old and in a play with Al Pacino on Broadway; Valerie Bertinelli saw him after the show at the stage door. She told him to contact her if there was anything she could ever do for him. Well, four years later he heard that One Day At A Time was casting a young teenager and he decided to take her up on her offer. He called her and mentioned the role and she told him what a great idea it was because Bonnie Franklin (who was already cast as the lead, Ann Romano) was looking for a kid with theatre experience. (Spoiler alert: He got the part.)

There’s an amazing scene where Glenn acts out and Bonnie slaps him. Bonnie didn’t want to slap him hard but Glenn told her he wanted it to be real. They did it in the dress rehearsal and the slap was so hard it made Glenn cry. Bonnie felt terrible, but Glenn still thought it was great! The next morning, Bonnie asked his mom if she could drive him to the studio (instead of his mom) so she could make sure Glenn knew how much she cared about him. They did the scene and it’s so great! Watch it here.

Mindy was a total non-theatre kid. She was planning on being a doctor after attending an all-girl private school in Los Angeles. The Facts of Life creators and Charlotte Rae (who was already cast as the lead) interviewed kids at Mindy’s school to help authenticate the scripts. Mindy was one of the kids randomly interviewed. Afterwards, Charlotte told her she was delightful and reminded her of her best friend from childhood. The next day the headmaster called Mindy and told her that it seemed like they were going to write her a role on the new TV show. It’s so crazy because she was not a theatre kid at all! But suddenly she had a meeting with Norman Lear and at the end, he asked what her favorite color was. She told him it was green and he said, “Great! Natalie Green.” And that was that!

Danielle’s casting story is totally the opposite. She was playing Molly, the youngest orphan in Annie, but was getting too big to play her, but still too small to play Annie. So, at nine years old, she persuaded her family to move to L.A.

Annie_Broadway_Production_Photo_1977_Andrea McArdle as Annie and Danielle Brisebois _HR.jpg
Andrea McArdle, Danielle Brisebois, and cast Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Charles Strouse (who wrote the music to Annie) wrote the theme song to All In The Family and set Danielle up with a Norman Lear meeting. She sang for Norman and Carroll O’Connor (a.k.a. All in the Family’s Archie Bunker) heard her. He recognized her from Annie and told her (like Valerie did for Glenn) that he was so appreciative of the joy she’d brought him that he would love to be able to help her.

She jokingly said “Put me in a show!” and, because the characters of Gloria and Mike were leaving All In The Family, they decided to write a role for Danielle! They let Danielle choose her own character name and, because she had just seen The Wiz, she chose the name Stephanie Mills. Seriously!!!! What if she had just seen Funny Girl? Archie’s niece would have been little nine-year-old Barbra Streisand!

P.S. Danielle loved working with Carroll and she talked about how he treated her with such respect as a fellow actor. When they would finish read-throughs of the script, the other actors would offer comments/suggestions and Carroll would point to Danielle and tell everyone that she had ideas as well! Danielle was then able to suggest changes or tell them what lines felt uncomfortable for her. Look here at how sweet they are together.

I asked Jill about her audition for Airplane! and she said it was basically, “Can you make a funny face?” She made the face and that landed her the role of the sick little girl on the plane. The face happens when Lorna Patterson’s guitar knocks the I.V. out of her arm. Watch!

Mackenzie auditioned for her role on One Day at a Time after she had done American Grafitti and Norman Lear loved her. However, she had been in the business for a while and Bonnie (remember, who played the mother) told Norman that Mackenzie was way too old to play her daughter. Norman told Bonnie that Mackenzie was only 16! Because Mackenzie had done film, she didn’t necessarily want her doing TV, which was considered not as good. But her manager then told her that TV shows barely last so she might as well. Cut to: It ran for nine years! Here is yet another scene where Bonnie slaps her kid! (P.S. she only did it to Mackenzie and Glenn).

And P.S. If you don’t Bonnie Franklin, she was the star of One Day at a Time but started out on Broadway. She passed away a few years ago but I was luck enough to interview her on Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show. Bonnie was nominated for a Tony Award for Applause.

Bonnie sang the title song and told me that Applause was the only song that didn't change from the first out-of-town try-out until the opening on Broadway. Everything else in the show kept changing, including casting a new Eve Harrington (the fabulous Penny Fuller). And “Applause” always brought down the house.

Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou in <i>Applause</i>
Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou in Applause Friedman-Abeles / New York Public Library

Bonnie says Betty (as Lauren Bacall was known to her co-workers because that was her real name) was a kind leading lady and that if it had been an Ethel Merman show, Bonnie would have been fired (because La Merm didn't like other ladies in her shows getting big applause). But Betty had no qualms about the song "Applause" stopping the show.

Speaking of someone else named Betty (but spelled B-e-t-t-e), years later Bonnie ran into Bette Davis in L.A. and asked her if she'd seen Applause. Turns out, Bette had seen it, and she hated it! She said that the theme of the story is about aging, yet Lauren Bacall always looked stunning throughout the whole show. Maybe so, but she made up for it by taking every song down the octave. Here’s Bonnie on the Tony Awards.

Side note: the waiter with the mustache is Sammy Williams, who went on to win a Tony Award as Paul in A Chorus Line; one of the other waiters is Nick Dante, whom the role of Paul is based on (and who co-wrote the book of A Chorus Line), and the woman talking at the beginning is Mitzi Hamilton, whom the role of Val is based on!

Seth Rudetsky and Bonnie Franklin
Seth Rudetsky and Bonnie Franklin

After Applause, Bonnie went to L.A. to meet with the Mary Tyler Moore people and Norman Lear. She and Norman hit it off and, after their meeting, he brought her in to read.

After several call-backs and a final audition for the network executives, she got the lead in One Day At A Time. Just kidding! She met with him once…and was then offered the lead.

Bonnie said it was a different time back then, and you didn't have to first get past the casting director before you got to the director/producer. Turns out, One Day At A Time was based on the real-life mother of Meredith Baxter-Birney. She only had one child, so that's how they did the pilot of the show, but it didn't work. They then went back and changed things, like adding Valerie Bertinelli and that’s all it took for the show to become a big hit!

Tonight on Stars In The House: A reunion of the film The Goodbye Girl with Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings, and Richard Dreyfus. Coming up we have reunions of three Broadway shows: The Prom, The Full Monty, and City Of Angels.

Tune into StarsInTheHouse.com and peace out!

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