24 January 2005 | theowinthrop
A Spin-off With A Touch of Tragedy
Of all the characters on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW the least likable was possibly Phyllis Lindstrom. Played by Cloris Leachman (brilliantly) she was a pretentious know-it-all, who patronized Mary Richards (Ms Moore), acted like Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) was a weird social misfit, and managed to annoy or confuse the other regular in the cast. Only once, when she learned that her unseen husband Lars had an affair (or sorts) with Sue Anne Nivens (Betty White) did Phyllis become sympathetic. Suddenly we felt she was human after all. But the character constantly ended with mud in her face in most of her appearances, and so she was a welcome member of the cast.
After RHODA spun off THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW it was thought that shows about the other characters might work. Actually the hour series LOU GRANT turned out to be successful too. But PHYLLIS was a harder nut to sell to the public. Rhoda Morgenstern was sympathetic because she was trying to find a husband and trying to survive her mother (Nancy Walker). Lou Grant (Edward Asner) was an experienced newspaperman, whose marriage had fallen apart. But PHYLLIS had no likable characteristic. This, of course, made a spin-off with her as the central character seem a hard sell.
The plot took Phyllis to California. Lars has died, so Phyllis takes her daughter Beth (Lisa Gerritson) with her and settle with Lars mother (Jane Rose) and her second husband, a Judge (Henry Jones). Also in the household is the Judge's mother (Judith Lowry). The first episodes were about her setting up her new home and her new job. But the job was with a woman named Julie Erskine, played by Barbara Colby. Unfortunately the talented, subtle, likable Ms Colby was killed with a boyfriend in an unsolved murder just a week or so after Phyllis began. The role was re-casted by Liz Torres.
Colby's murder would have been a serious problem for any show to get out of. That the producers and writers tried to continue the role show a willingness to wait and see if the public would accept the change. Fortunately the show managed to pull in a regular audience each week, partly because of the character played by Judith Lowry. The 80+ actress played a caustic tongued lady who did for Phyllis in this show what Rhoda had done in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. The part was a bit role, but like Henry Winkler's Fonzie on HAPPY DAYS it gradually expanded. Even when Phyllis went out of her way to be nice to her, Ms Lowry cut her down to size. She even filled out background about her youth. In one episode she shocks Henry Jones by openly suggesting that the great romance of her early days was with President Warren Harding!
As a result the show went through it's first season, and seemed to be headed to success. However it decided to change the location of Phyllis's job, changing from the business that was run by Torres (formerly by Colby) to being an assistant to a city councilman. The episode where Phyllis landed this job was quite humorous in another way: the councilman whom Phyllis initially goes to see about the job is John Ritter, who is in the midst of a news conference denying allegations of improprieties. She tries to start her duties, only to find Ritter asking her to help shred some files. As he tries to do this the police arrive to drag him off. Fortunately another councilman turns up who needs an assistant.
The second season seemed destined for success, and the beginning of a long run. In December 1976 Lowry's character married her current boy-friend (not a relative of Harding, by the way), in an full episode. Within two months Lowry died (so did Burt Mustlin, the elderly actor who played her bridegroom). Unlike Colby's character, which had not fully developed when she died, Lowry's had been developed. There was a taped introduction to an episode by Leachman, in honor to Lowry. It was moving. Unfortunately there was little time to figure out how to fill Lowry's big shoes (or remove the growing taint of a "Phyllis" curse). The show was not renewed for another season. Well, two seasons for a weakened spin off is not bad...and it was a better show than AFTER M.A.S.H. was.