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Looking at Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington today, it’s hard to picture them as the revolutionaries they once were. They look more like four folks from the suburbs than the cast of a television show that introduced prime-time audiences to the modern reality of single moms.
The year was 1975 and the show was “One Day at a Time.” And right from the beginning, the cast knew they had touched a chord, Franklin, who played single mom Ann Romano, told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Tuesday.
“As soon as we went on the air we started receiving a lot of letters,” she said. “The letters were saying, ‘This is my life. This is what I’m going through. This is what my mother is like.’ And so we pretty quickly got the idea that we were touching something.”
Phillips and Bertinelli were just six months apart in real life and 14 years old when the show started, but they played daughters Julie, 17, and Barbara, 15.
For comic relief, the show created Harrington’s character, Schneider, the building superintendent. With a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of his white T-shirt and a tool belt decorating his overalls, Schneider kept showing up in the apartment, hitting on Ann and talking of his prowess with the ladies.
His cocky charm and contrived swagger earned him the nickname “the Burt Reynolds of the boiler room.”
The four stay in touch, but they welcomed the opportunity to get together in New York as part of TODAY’s “Together Again: TV’s Greatest Casts Reunited.”
When “One Day at a Time” debuted, TV sitcoms still revolved around nuclear families. They weren’t always the most functional of units — “All in the Family” had introduced audiences to the culture clash of Archie Bunker and his meathead son-in-law — but they were families.
Just the year before “One Day at a Time” debuted, the big new hit was “Happy Days,” which celebrated the innocent 1950s.
By 1975, innocence was gone. The divorce rate in America was skyrocketing and women, riding the new wave of feminism, were taking their skills into the workplace as they fought to raise families on their own. The time was right for a show about it, and Lear developed the idea that was created by writer Allan Manings and actress Whitney Blake.
Blake had been a single mother raising her daughter, Meredith Baxter, who would grow up to become the mom on “Family Ties,” and Manings based the concept on her.
That was news to Phillips, Bertinelli and Harrington.
“Thirty years later, I find something out,” said Bertinelli.
Franklin was just 32 in real life, but she was cast as the mother of two teenage daughters. The show was a sitcom but it took on some tough subjects, including teenage suicide, sexual harassment and religious zealots.
Harrington, who is 78 and still as sharp as ever, said that’s where he came in.
“We dealt with some really difficult topics,” he said. “So you gotta have something for four or five pages in the first act and then the second act where you’re guaranteed some laughs. I’m a laugh guarantee.”
He wrote his own material and even contributed several scripts to the show.
In the program’s later years, Phillips, the daughter of John Phillips of the singing group the Mamas and the Papas, was written out of the show twice as she battled drug addictions. Her fellow cast members didn’t want to revisit that time out of respect for her, but Phillips has no qualms about discussing it.
“We don’t gloss over it,” she said. “It would be untrue to history. It was a big part of what we did.”
Some cast members clueless
Franklin, who runs a community outreach theater group, said she had no idea what was going on with Phillips and drugs. Harrington, who often volunteers to help Franklin’s group in California, said he also was in the dark.
“It impacted the show that we lost Mackenzie for a good period of time,” Franklin said. “It was a wake-up call for me. I didn’t even know what was going on. I knew it was bad.”
“I knew absolutely nothing,” said Harrington. “We didn’t have that many scenes together. I didn’t see a problem.”
Lauer steered the discussion back to the show’s theme song, which, Franklin observed, “wasn’t a very good theme song.” But they still remembered all the words, including the line that summed it all up:
“Hold on tight. We’ll muddle through, one day at a time.’”