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March 9th / 10th, 2013

"'Kick-Ass' TV Mom Bonnie Franklin Passes Away"

Bonnie Franklin with Jim Longworth in 1978
Bonnie Franklin with Jim Longworth in 1978

In 1978, CBS invited me to LA to interview their stars. In turn, I would agree to help the network promote their primetime line-up by broadcasting the interviews back home in North Carolina. Our makeshift studio was in a Century City hotel suite, where network handlers brought TV icons to me, one after another: Robert Wagner, Telly Savalas, Buddy Ebsen — it was like a Who’s Who of Hollywood parading in and out of my room like chambermaids. Suddenly a tiny, red-headed pixie strolled in. Her eyes literally sparkled; they spoke volumes about what was going on inside that very talented head. Bonnie Franklin was now an established TV star, and a very sexy one at that. In fact, she was the first female lead since Lassie to work without a bra. I was mesmerized by her beauty and enthusiasm, and we had a good visit.

Bonnie Franklin with Jim Harrington and Valerie Bertinelli (of One Day at a Time) and Jim Longworth in 2007
Bonnie Franklin with Jim Harrington and
Valerie Bertinelli (of One Day at a Time)
and Jim Longworth in 2007

Almost exactly 30 years later, I was called upon by the Television Academy to moderate a Mother’s Day salute to TV moms, and Bonnie agreed to be one of the honorees. including fellow TV moms like Meredith Baxter, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross and Holland Taylor. That night, Bonnie spoke of how her mother scraped together enough money to pay for her singing and dancing lessons. “She wanted me to have poise and grace at age 4,” Bonnie said.

The lessons paid off for Bonnie, beginning with bit parts as a child actor, and later as a star on Broadway, and as a liberated, iconic TV Mom in “One Day at a Time.” Bonnie and Meredith revealed to me that “Day” was the brainchild of Meredith’s mom Whitney Blake (herself a TV Mom in “Hazel”), whose autobiographical story was about a 38-year-old Mother raising an 18-year-old daughter, and was titled, “38/18.” Norman Lear added a second daughter to the mix and named the show “One Day at a Time.”

“I don’t ever remember wanting to play a mother,” Bonnie told me. But the role of Ann Romano fit her to a T. Ann, like Bonnie, was a strong, independent woman. Together, actress and character broke new ground on television, and gave a voice and validation to single moms everywhere.

On one episode, Lear’s male writers wanted Ann to be raped, but Bonnie rejected the treatment. “The first act was about Ann going to a singles bar and fooling around, and the second act was her getting raped. And I went, ‘Whoa, if you’re going to do this, it needs to be handled in the entire episode.’ So instead they did that story as an episode of ‘All in the Family’ where Edith was raped, and that came out of our show not doing it successfully, and moving on to somebody who did it really well.”

It wasn’t that Bonnie was a diva. “It was about protecting your femaleness. It was a way of saying, ‘I don’t think [Ann] would do this’”, Bonnie told me.

Bonnie, who had no children of her own, took co-stars MacKenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli under her wing. And, like a real mom, Bonnie laid down the law and spread the love with equal aplomb.

“The big lesson she gave them was, ‘Monday morning at the table, you better have stayed in that script for the entire weekend,’ and you could see that happening as time went on,” costar Pat Harrington told me. Added Bertinelli, “For nine years I had a master class in comedy and drama. I’m lucky to have worked with her, and wouldn’t be here without her.”

Speaking of child rearing, the hardest I ever made Bonnie laugh was when I told the Academy audience, “One day between set-ups, Bonnie had a talk with young Valerie about staying a virgin. Ironically, Val’s new book is titled Losing It.”

In the years following our reunion, Bonnie and I kept in touch and sometimes talked about politics. Pat Harrington recalled with a chuckle Bonnie’s liberal leanings. “I loved talking politics with her, but lately, that became impossible!” Bonnie was an activist who lent her support to important causes, like the AIDS project of LA, for which she helped raise $200,000 last April. By September, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On Jan. 6, I e-mailed her a birthday greeting as I always did, but it went unanswered. She was too weak to respond. Bonnie died last week at the age of 69.

“She was so full of light and love,” Mackenzie Phillips recalled.

“When I was a kid, I thought she was a kick-ass TV Mother. If I ever played a mom, I wanted to be her,” said Tichina Arnold (“Everybody Loves Chris”).

“Bonnie was lovely, smart, had an acute eye and ready humor,” Meredith Baxter told me.

“She was a beauty, and completely her own woman,” said Pat Harrington.

Perhaps “Two and a Half Men’s” Holland Taylor said it best:

“That was a girl who didn’t have dying in her repertoire.”

So true.