Thursday, March 28, 2013

Equality and Rhoda Morgenstern

Inspired by this historic week of Supreme Court hearings on the issue of marriage equality, The Daily Beast posted an article online yesterday that brought TV entertainment into the discussion.  Kevin Fallon wrote the piece called "What Classic Sitcoms Taught Us About Gay Rights."  The article included clips from The Golden Girls, Designing Women, All in the Family, Gimme a Break!, The Facts of Life, Roseanne and Seinfeld.  Those were the shows mentioned in Kevin Fallon's piece.

It may not have been a moment specifically about gay rights but it was a major embrace of diversity on a classic sitcom.  Who went out on more than one date with a gay man because he was a great guy?  Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He was the visiting brother of someone Rhoda and Mary knew. It was a sweet and funny episode.  Mary and Phyllis didn't fully know the man and figured a romance with brewing in Rhoda's life.  Another refreshing element -- he was just a regular guy who happened to be gay.  He didn't have to be "fabulous" with a hyper-gayness that whacked you on the head like a velvet hammer.  Think Jack on Will & Grace, Mario Cantone's character on Sex and the City, and the couple on NBC's The New Normal.  As they said on Seinfeld, "....not that there's anything wrong with that."  Rhoda's date was more like the gay working class men I knew in Milwaukee and Chicago.  Again, Valerie Harper made us love America's Favorite Gal Pal even more.  That was in the 1970s.
In the next decade, Tony Randall battled behind-the-scenes bigotry as he played the lead character in a  new NBC sitcom.  Love, Sidney aired from 1981 to 1983, after his successful run on The Odd Couple with Jack Klugman. We loved Randall as Felix Unger from 1970 to 1975.  Swoosie Kurtz was Randall's co-star on Love, Sidney.
The sitcom was spun from a 1981 TV movie called Sidney Shorr: A Girl's Best Friend.  Randall and Kurtz also starred in NBC TV movie.  He was a lonely gay man in 50s, financially comfortable and living alone.  He'd love to have a feeling of family in his life.  He meets a troubled, broke single mother and her little girl in New York City.  He opens his life and apartment to them.  He becomes a father figure to the little girl.
When the TV movie became a sitcom, network executives were nervous about Sidney being obviously gay.  But we viewers knew what the deal was.  When I worked on WPIX/Channel 11 in New York, I interviewed Mr. Randall in 1985 or '86.  He was terrific.  As much as you loved him on The Odd Couple, you loved him even more in person.  On our show, he was quite frank about his disappointment with the network executives.  He wanted to play Sidney as a gay New Yorker.  He felt that NBC went chicken and caved in to bigotry.  This sitcom is always overlooked today in print articles or television specials about gay images on TV.  It shouldn't be.  Randall really had brass balls to play and to want to play a gay character on a TV series at that time.  This was well before Will & Grace and Ellen starring Ellen DeGeneres in the 1990s...long before today's Modern Family.  For someone who'd been a Hollywood movie star and then a TV sitcom star, his was a very bold and brave move.

Keep in mind the arguments in the Supreme Court this week.  Now listen to this short clip of the late Tony Randall talking about Love, Sidney for the TV Academy archives.

Love, Sidney was groundbreaking, in its way.  And Rhoda Morgenstern...we love her!  Producer/Writer James L. Brooks laced so much sweet diversity into The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

For classic film fans:  We know Tony Randall from funny films.  He got his share of laughs sharing screen time with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

He appeared in their three romantic comedies -- Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers.

He got to watch Marilyn Monroe at work.

He co-starred in her musical comedy, Let's Make Love.
Debbie Reynolds, Kim Novak and Jayne Mansfield were his leading ladies in other romantic comedies.  But one of the best movie performances Tony Randall ever gave was in a suburban drama directed by Martin Ritt (Paris Blues, Hud, The Great White Hope, Sounder, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Norma Rae).  If the Fox Movie Channel airs No Down Payment again, make a point to see it.  This 1957 movie looks at four married couples who live so close to each other in a Southern California suburb that they're practically in the same house.  Joanne Woodward, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Rush, Jeffrey Hunter and Sheree North also star in No Down Payment.  
With religion, racism and even rape entering the marital dramas of the four couples, the movie is pretty much a soap opera.  However, it's worth watching for some good performances -- especially the one from Tony Randall as the alcoholic used car salesman and family man.

Jerry Flagg wishes he was the kind of hotshot company guy we see working with Don Draper on TV's Mad Men.  He's not.  He's frustrated and feels trapped in a suburban life where he thinks it's important to keep up an image that will impress the neighbors.

This frustration is why Jerry drinks.  Randall makes Jerry both infuriating and heartbreaking.

It's quite a good performance.  Tony Randall was quite a guy.

1 comment:

  1. Would love to see "Love, Sidney" released on DVD. I remember the series, and despite it being over 30 years old, the show was well written, and used subtleties to get the point across while focusing on the humanity of Sidney. He was right, you didn't need to hit people over the head to convey the humanity of a situation rather than sensationalize it.


For the Love of Art, PACKED IN A TRUNK

Art, love, sexual freedom, a shady lawyer, women's history, family devotion.  A fascinating story.  Please, if you have Netflix, you mus...