42 years ago today we started production on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and I began playing a character named Heather – a job that changed my life in wonderful and tragic ways.
People are finally accepting that too many child performers are exploited. I hope my story can shed some light into just a few of the many ways we are taken advantage of.
By 1975 I was a cash cow for my folks – I was eleven, and had been in the business since I was three. I held my SAG & AFTRA Union cards from the age of five and seven, respectively. I’d done nearly 60 commercials and a few television feature spots, I’d booked dozens of print jobs and voice over gigs, and was the face of a Mattel toy – not a very popular toy, but, still…
I came to be part of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman at the last possible minute. I went on the interview Wednesday after school, got the call back and job the next evening, and on Friday morning I was sitting dazedly at the first table read. In 43 hours my life turned on a dime.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was the brainchild of television legend Norman Lear, his grand statement on how American Consumerism isolates and leaves us unfulfilled, presented as a satire of a soap opera. Sort of. It was his poke in the eye to censors, conventions and Pearl Clutchers.
In a year and a half we shot 325 episodes. MH2 was a 5-day-a-week affair that had a cult following that goes on today. It was the first television show that proved you didn’t need a network to succeed or a laugh-track to be funny. It also introduced multiple positive LGBTQ characters to television at a time when Harvey Milk had not yet been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It is not overstating to call it ground breaking.
The list of exceptional performers who appeared on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a who’s who of funny and talented people from the 70s: Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Martin Mull, Fred Willard, Dabney Coleman, Doris Roberts, Dody Goodman, Graham Jarvis, Greg Mullavey, Salome Jens, Norm Alden, Reva Rose, Sparky Marcus, Marian Mercer, Gloria Dehaven, Orson Bean, Ed Begley, Jr., Howard Hessman, David Suskind and Gore Vidal, just to name a few. It was just that cool at the height of its popularity.
The reason why even I got the interview to end up in such rarefied air was because my mom had blown up at my agent, Iris Burton, for not getting me any good interviews.
Mind you: I had just landed five commercials in six months – including the fountain-of-residuals Nestle $100,000 Bar spot – but my mother demanded more from my agent. She wanted better interviews and she demanded readings for movies and television series. There were shouted threats of moving the gusher-of-money that I was to different representation.
A few days after their angry conversation I got the interview for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – and it was nothing less than a grudge interview. My agent had submitted me for the role of a 13-year-old, busty, frizzy haired girl with bad skin. I was 11, and skinny as a rail with no figure at all. I had long braids and glasses and silky smooth skin. Iris had secured an interview for a role I simply didn’t fit, and she was showing my mother not to mess with her or question her judgment.
When we got there it looked like a cattle call (which is probably why I got the interview), and I was given what was called a ‘side’ to study. A side is a mini scene for audition purposes, usually 2 or 3 pages long. (These days it also refers to the pages of a movie script that will be shot on any given day of a shoot) This side was a piece where the mother (Mary) is trying to talk to the daughter (Heather) about sex, and the daughter manipulates her mother by redirecting the conversation to make it seem as if she’s virginally pure, which relieves the mother to no end.
I read the side to myself, and then read through it with my mom, ignoring her coaching. I sat on the floor in the too-warm hall waiting for my interview, as the actual waiting room was overflowing with girls who looked nothing like me.
There was nothing special at all about this interview, it was one of fifteen or twenty I went on every month. My time was never my own – it was more an all-consuming continuum of school, auditions and work.
When I was finally called in to the interview I turned ‘on’ like a light switch. I knew how to look the casting director in the eye, say hello with a smile and hand my litho forward, with my name at the bottom. I had literally done this 1,000 times before.
The casting director introduced herself as Jane, and the Director as Joan. There were other people to whom I was not introduced, and who watched silently as I read the scene with Joan. Joan nodded when we got to the end of the scene, and asked me to do it again – this time miming the orange juice I was supposed to be getting out of the refrigerator. We did the scene a second time, and I a saw the a ghost of a smile from Joan.
Jane asked if I had any other auditions that afternoon, or if I could stay to watch the two pilot episodes of the show. My mother was retrieved from the waiting room and taken to a writer’s office. She was the first and only parent I saw that afternoon to do the walk of ‘My Kid Is Better Than Yours’ through a sea of angry parents and dejected children. I’m sure she was graceless.
We two sat on a couch in a cold office looking up at a monitor on a large metal rolling stand. The screen flickered to life and the episode began as a nearly sepia-toned video of kick-knacks on a table came into focus, and with it the swelling of over-dramatic music saturated with high-pitched violins. Out of nowhere a voice screeches, “Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!!” so shrilly and gratingly I physically winced. Then came a gush of overwrought music heavy on the strings, parodying the soundtrack of really bad soap operas.
It is a distinctive open. Oh, so distinctive. I was tormented in High School with people shrieking it at me as I passed them in the hall. I’ve had grown-ups shout it in my face at parties as if I’ve never heard it before. I’ll bet you I’ve heard, “Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!!” ten thousand times in my life if I’ve heard it once. But, I get ahead of myself.
Torture yourself here with this link, if you must.
As I watched the pilots I clearly remember not understanding all the jokes. The episodes were strange and my mother didn’t know what to make of it, either. The lack of a laugh track threw her off, and I remember her saying later she didn’t know if she was supposed to be laughing at things or not.
It was late when I read for the folks in the room a third time, and they thanked me as I left. We drove home in the dark, and – exhausted – I didn’t get my homework done again.
The next day after school I was in my bedroom, sitting on my bed unsuccessfully trying to figure out what my algebra book was saying. It had been a bad day. 10-Week Grades had come out and mine weren’t the best from never having time to do my homework. I was struggling mightily in math and had gotten a D, and my mother’s answer was to verbally and physically abuse me. I was grounded (as if I ever had time to go anywhere), and sent to my room to magically figure out integers and angles I couldn’t decipher before.
Suddenly, my mother burst into the room making the door crash against the wall. She never knocked once the entire time I lived in that house – and I was not allowed to ever fully close my door at that point. Crashing doors usually meant more verbal abuse or hitting, and I cringed, throwing my hands up around my head to protect myself from the expected blows. But instead of being wild eyed mad, she was wild eyed excited. Rather than getting mad at me for protecting my head, she laughed it off and said, “Get dressed! You’re late for a callback! They want to see you back from yesterday, but they forgot to call Iris. Hurry!! We should be there now. Where are your clothes?”
She was no longer hurling invectives, telling me how stupid and worthless I was. She seemed to have forgotten the head blows she had delivered minutes before, and was telling me to get ready.
My clothes from the day before had been stuffed into my laundry bag, and they were wrinkled. Manically, she threw them in the drier to tumble out the wrinkles, and brushed and braided my hair, while having me hold a cold compress to my face to erase the swelling and redness from my sobbing.
“C’mon – you’re not really going to go in there looking like that! Where’s your apple pie smile? Smile like you mean it – smile with your EYES!!” she encouraged/threatened.
She was so focused on getting me to look exactly as I had the day before and rushing out the door, that she didn’t run a comb through her hair or change out of the dirty black slacks and grubby sweater she had on – a point that would torment her to the end. Before I knew it we were out on the road in the middle of rush hour traffic, heading over the hill on the Hollywood Freeway.
We’re trapped in the car with maybe an hour until we got there, and my mom is vibrating she was so excited, drilling me on how to do it her way. It was a complete 180 from half an hour before, and as I rode in the car I was on an emotional roller coaster. I was still feeling shitty from how my mother screamed at me and hit me, plus the bad math grade I had to deal with. Add to that the need to psyche myself up for an important read that I was very late for, and my mother was trying to force me to do her way. But beyond all that detritus and noise, there was euphoria about getting a callback for a Norman Lear series.
When we finally arrived we were waved on to the lot to park and I was rushed into Norman Lear’s office where he, Louise Lasser, Director Joan Darling, producer Al Burton, and writer Gail Parent were waiting. I made eye contact and gave them my apple pie smile, pretending my head didn’t hurt where my mother had been punching it 90 minutes ago.
I read the same side as I’d read the day before, only this time instead of reading with the Director I was reading it with Louise Lasser. Suddenly the scene was done, and they told me ‘Thank you, you can go’.
Thank you, you can go? But – we’d only read it once. How could it be ‘Thank you, you can go’?!
In less than 5 minutes I was in and out, and I found myself heading toward the elevator in dismayed shock, not understanding how I had failed so completely and astoundingly fast when it felt like a good read. I knew it was going to be a long, ugly ride home.
We were getting on the elevator in silence when Al Burton called my name down the hall. When I heard the smile in his voice I knew I had the job. My heart hit my feet as I stuck my hand out to stop the heavy elevator doors.
Al caught up to us and said they all really liked the way I read the part, and then he asked if I wanted to join the cast. “The job yours if you want it,” he said, smiling and looking me in the eyes like I mattered.
That moment was awesome in the truest definition of the word. I was validated for all the times I wasn’t chosen, and felt special because this time I was the best. It felt like winning. It was a very long time before I had another feeling that good.
I remember gasping and jumping up and down. I remember saying, “Yes!!” and bear hugging Al, and then hugging my mom as she beamed and rocked me back and forth in that elevator.
I remember being happy – happy in a way you can only be when you’re too young to have the filter that adults have, the filter that stops you from showing what you really think.
I don’t think that there was ever a time my mother was more proud of me than that evening in the hallway outside Norman Lear’s office.
That moment in the elevator outside Norman Lear’s office changed my life completely. One day I was attending Junior High school in the most polluted part of the San Fernando Valley, and the next I was at a long table on Stage 5 at KTLA studio meeting my cast mates and production people.
We were given our scripts for episodes 3, 4 and 5 and did the first, last, and only table read we ever did for the show. There was never time after that initial day for the luxury of such a thing. There was a lady there who took care of timing out the scenes and continuity named Susan Harris who had the patience of Job with me. I was absolutely fascinated by the cigar box full of gum and mints (wow! Tic Tacs!) that she kept with her at all times. I must have looked like a chipmunk with all the gum I shoved in my mouth that morning. She was kind to an antsy, nervous kid.
I was bored stiff by the time we were done reading the 3 scripts. Somehow something as simple as reading words printed on paper turned into a thing. It felt like everyone was making a bigger deal out of it than it needed to be. I know now that everyone was staking out their territory, planting flags and trying to establish a pecking order. It was grueling, and finally it ended.
We all went down to Stage 5 where a luncheon was held for the cast and the production people. It was catered by Chasen’s – a perennial favorite of Norman Lear. There were place cards, and all of us had goody bags on our plates. They were a bunch of kitschy things. My bag had a draw string and was sewn to look like a pineapple. It had a plastic charm, 4 tickets to the children’s show Sheriff John which were 5 years old, a pack of stale gum, some ribbons, an Oscar Meier Wiener whistle and some other junk. Everyone else had similar stuff. Although I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, it seemed to signify the budget we were working under.
I watched as the adults who seemed familiar with each other laugh too loud at inside jokes, and I tried too hard to be part of group. I saw Louise again, and spoke for a while with Greg Mullavey, the man who would play my ever-adolescent father. I met my meddling grandparents, Dody Goodman who was charming and welcoming, and Phil Bruns who was grumpy and had the sour smell of an alcoholic. Debra Lee Scott played my oversexed Aunt and seemed to be the social butterfly. I barely spoke with a quiet Victor Killian, who played my great-grandfather, the infamous Fernwood Flasher. I was delighted by Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis who played the neighbors – an unlikely crazy-in-love couple where she was a smoking hot aspiring country-singer and him a balding middle-aged man who would give you the shirt off his back – they were both down to earth people. In fact, they were all as kind as they were capable of being to the stranger they’d just met, a child hired play a smart-assed, angst ridden teen who was wiser than her years and called out the adults for inconsistencies and hypocrisies. I may have been my family’s Cash Cow and had a giant weight on my shoulders, but I was still just a kid they’d just met – and I’m sure they were more focused on how to make this show that was so different than anything else on television work. They knew we only had 10 days to get ready for the grind of memorizing, rehearsing, blocking and filming 125-150 pages of dialogue PER WEEK.
It never occurred to me that Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was going to be anything other than a smash hit.
After lunch we were prodded by a strange doctor so that insurance could be taken out on the production. We all got into our wardrobe, and went to hair and make-up for our cast publicity shots. My wardrobe consisted of the same pants, shirt, belt, bracelet, braids, barrettes and glasses I sported on the audition and callback. (I can actually say I created Heather from the ground up) The photo we took that afternoon is iconic – and a giant blow-up of it sits behind Norman’s desk, a profound tribute given the sheer number of shows he has produced.
My new-found station in life brought with it a well deserved bonus -a little something something – some frosting on the cake, if you will.
For signing a contract on a daily AFTRA television series my parents saw their way to giving me the princely sum $5 and dinner at Diamond Jim’s.
That’s right. I got a Fin and a Steak for landing a Whale.
The break down was $1 for a print job, $2 per commercial ($1 extra if they make 2 spots out if it), and $5 (American!) for a series. A series. I didn’t get a regular $2 a week allowance until I was 12-years-old and I was making $750 a week. I’ll do the math for you: that’s me getting just under $9 allowance in today’s dollars on a weekly paycheck of $3,350.
The Cash Cow was getting milked raw.
I remember feeling so grown up and proud the night we went to Diamond Jim’s, a past its prime cocktails-and-red-meat establishment on Hollywood Boulevard. As we were led to a high-backed leather booth, I boasted to the server that I’d gotten a series, and he kindly kept my Shirley Temple filled all night (extra maraschino cherries, please!). I’m sure my parents thought “Great! Now we have to tip.”
I wanted this to be a grand evening, but, the place was stuffy and filled with smoke, and didn’t have any food for children – it was a disappointment after the build up. The truth was that this was a restaurant for my parents, not a place for me. I was just tagging along on their celebratory dinner because I was footing the bill.
My whole family should have gone to Shakey’s or Piece O’ Pizza, followed by a trip to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor for a Zoo. Instead, my parents isolated me from my brothers and created resentment where none ever needed to exist.
Beyond the Politics of Envy, I ask you – Which was more insulting? A $5 payoff for landing a union gig, (Oh, irony! Thy name is Unionized Child Labor!) or the 3 of us celebrating the impending plunder of my hard-earned money?
That night I felt like I was a successful grown up, and in a way I was. I may have only been 11, but I had a 26 week guaranteed Union contract as a regular on a series. With that contract and my commercial residuals I would earn more than double in 6 months than my father would ever make in a single year in his whole life. He topped out in 1985 at $33,500. You bet your ass I was grown up.
My parents stole almost every penny I ever made as a child. Had it not been for the paper-tiger Coogan Law, I’d have lost everything that I would earn over the next 2 ½ years of working for Norman Lear. This larceny was unchecked by the State. Hell, it was APPROVED of by the court, who left me with the paltry sum of $20,000 when I turned 18. A sum that was further chipped away by the $2,000 delinquent tax bill I received as an Eighteenth birthday present.
How much did they steal? There is no way to estimate the true figure, because they claimed I made different sums to the IRS, the Courts, both Unions and ME.
Also? (And this is VERY important) Commercials were not covered by the Coogan Law. Parents of someone like me, who made between $175-$200K (today’s dollars) between the ages of 3 and 11, weren’t required to ensure that the money went to the person who earned it.
How comforting to know that my parents were equal opportunity thieves who ran a racket and a half, and managed to get away with it.
Funny thing was, they lied to the Unions less than they lied to the IRS. I guess they were more afraid of running afoul of SAG and AFTRA, but not too afraid to have me do an appalling number of non-Union jobs that were never declared to anyone but my mother’s secret bank account and my father’s bookie.
Let’s look at some of the numbers, and I’ll run the abacus. Have some Pepto Bismol and a barf bag ready.
Here’s what my parents told the IRS I’d made by age 11:
That’s $28,324 they claimed I’d earned by the age of 11.
Indexed, I’d earned $159,966.31 in today’s dollars by 1975. (I used handy this inflation calculator provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
By 7th grade, and before getting booked on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, I’d made more than a sixth-of-a-million dollars in cold hard cash. According to the IRS.
Let that sink in for a moment. $160K Cash. Not invested, nor saved and earning interest.
This is a snapshot of my SAG earnings up to 1975 – note how it matches to the dollar with my IRS earnings report.
Looks good. A $2.92 discrepancy over eight years is absolutely acceptable.
But, wait! What’s this? Looks Like Ma and Pa Lamb were lying about my earnings to the IRS from my very first job. They claimed I’d done no work until 1968 – but here are my first ads from 1967, and my photo and credits from 1968 listing 2 big shoots here I don’t have the proofs for. I wonder where that money went?
They never claimed to the IRS any of of the multiple calendars, print ads or voice-over work I did before I had to join Screen Actors Guild in 1968, when I made $156 on my first union commercial – a long lost spot for Alpha Beta Supermarkets.
My parents pretended I did no work and earned not one dollar in 1969, despite the continuing print work, and me having been the face of Ford’s Tot Guard (their first child safety seat) and doing a non-union Gain Detergent commercial that played so much during the daily soaps I was recognized for the first time while in the grocery store.
Under-declaring my earnings? It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for them.
Looky there – it did. Because, in 1970, when I had to join the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists at the age of six, they were so far on the take they never reported any of my AFTRA earning to the IRS through 1975:
That’s $2,368 worth of work they didn’t declare to the IRS – that they claimed and paid dues on with AFTRA – is worth 11,404.74 in today’s cash.
I will never know how much I really earned by the time I’d gotten on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. A conservative guess would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 of today’s dollars. That was a metric shitload of cash and my parents did their very best to make it disappear.
By the time I started MH2 in November of 1975 my folks were in full swing, and had theft down to a science. Penn and Teller couldn’t make greenbacks disappear as well as Herb and Margaret could.
Everybody got a different story.
In 1976 my parents declared to the IRS that I made $15,300. Asking the IRS to believe I’d made less than $300 per week as a main cast member on a screaming hot television show was ballsy – and they were up to the challenge.
In 1976 I spent the full year employed under an AFTRA contract at a $750 weekly guarantee, and there were summer residuals and voice over promos for the show. The parents declared to this union I’d made $22, 775.
I was getting SAG residuals for the 5 commercials I’d shot the year before – including the aforementioned $100,00 Bar (Link) spot that was gushering $1,500 dollars a month, as Nestle wrapped Type-2 Diabetes in a pull of melted caramel and a catchy jingle a dozen times an afternoon on every cartoon show. My parents told Screen Actors Guild I made $32,442.36.
The mind boggling shell game went on until the show ended in 1978.
I made a few useful charts to outline the thievery. ‘Index’ indicates what that money would be worth in 2017 dollars. Remember, this is earned income – not what it could have been had it been invested with a reputable money manager.
You have to admit they had game when it came to stealing money from innocent children. By the time the real money was rolling in they had more hiding places than a pack-rat.
We were living large in the poor part of the San Fernando Valley in a house built in 1947 inherited from my father’s maiden Aunts, rolling The 101 in my mom’s 1974 Chevy Monza. Step back, bitches!
I can only imagine what that fortune would have been had they done the right thing – but that wasn’t an issue and what ever figures you see here are fake. There are no records for the dozens and dozens of non-union, off-the-books jobs that disappeared into my mother’s pocket without my father ever seeing a penny he could piss away at the poker table.
By rights I should have been a wealthy young woman when I tuned 18. It seems that for a lifetime of work and foregoing my childhood I should have had more to show for it than $1,000 a year.
Perhaps I’d have blown it had I gotten all of my money, but I doubt it very much. I never even tried cocaine, even as it sucked in so many of my contemporaries I was horrified. I SAW what coke did for loved-ones, co-stars, and roommates. If ANYONE says they’ve EVER seen me do a line of coke they’re lying, and I’ll take a polygraph test to prove it.
Among other things, that remaining $18,000 from my childhood paid for tuition for 3 years of college. Although I did have a full-time job at The Palace in Hollywood to pay rent. Yes – I moved out at 18 – what did you expect?
My Coogan account – such as it was – also allowed me to move to Colorado in 1984, at the ripe old age of 20. For so many reasons I needed to leave. I took $1,000 (just under $2,400 today), and set out towards a place with mountains and skiing where my parents couldn’t visit me unless they called first. I brought the idea of moving up to them, but I distinctly remember my mother losing her shit over me ‘moving to a jerkwater town with no future.’ God she was supportive. What did I expect? I was offered a full ride for 2 years at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and she acted like I wanted to join a cannibal cult.
Picture this – It’s 7 am on the first Saturday in June, 1984. *Knock Knock* “Mom, Dad – don’t get out of bed. I’m moving to Colorado. No – really. Don’t get out of bed. My car is packed and I’m leaving. I’ll call when I get there.” I was out the door like my ass was on fire. Within 2 weeks of leaving LA I had a job that covered all my bills – I was teaching acting in Denver.
I also used the money to buy my first Subaru – a Brat that I adored and defined the new person I’d become when I left Los Angeles.
Finally, I used the remainder to put a down payment on my first home.
I remember my mother wistfully opining in the waning years of her life, as she lived like the Merry Widow and denied the single request for help I’d made as an adult at Christmas in 1999, “It’s a shame you wasted your money from Mary Hartman.”
There are times when I think back to that night at Diamond Jim’s… That night, THAT dinner meant something really special to my parents. It was the validation of all of their hard work at marketing their children and what they’d been working toward: One of their kids was good enough to land a national television series.
It meant a spigot of money like nothing they’d ever seen had just turned on. The family income tripled in one fortuitous afternoon. What’s not to celebrate? They were kicking up their heels.
At least that night I didn’t know my parents were stealing from me, and I thought the celebration was for *my* accomplishment. That was one small mercy the universe extended to me.
On November 18th, 1975, Joan Darling handed us all a small blue box before rehearsal. From the gasps of the folks around me I knew it was something special. I untied the thick white ribbon. Greedily I opened the tiny box to find a felt bag emblazoned ‘Tiffany & Co.’ Inside was a key fob with a charm that said ‘MH, MH’ on the front and ’11-18-75′ on the back, the date when we all set to work to make the best goddamn television show in the history of ever.
My parents stole an unconscionable seven-figures from me without the bat of an eye – and stole my childhood as well, and there is no way to forgive that. None. People keep cheering on children in show business with no oversight.
I will always be grateful that I was so terrifically lucky that my bondage was in the company of greats – I know not every child actor gets that. I learned comedy at their feet. I know that the IBM Selectric typewriter Norman Lear made sure arrived in my schoolroom has meant all the difference in the world to me.
In the end, all I was paid for 15 years of hard labor amounted to a Venti Latte a day – no extra pulls.