Bonnie Frankilin is tickled mauve about being about being the star of a hit television series.
Howard Hessman feels guilty about being the star of a hit television series.
For Franklin and Hessman, a successful series is a career milestone but, each gives the milestone a different weight. What they have in common is that "One day at a Time" would probably not be the hit it is without Franklin's singularly intelligent perkiness, and "WKRP in Cincinnati," another top CBS comedy, would have had a hard time hanging on without Hessman's rumpled and resourceful portrayal of frazzled deejay Dr. Johnny Fever.
Both play their parts in the national theater of the commonplace that is situation comedy, always the staple of the TV diet. But they have contrasting views about how healthy that diet is.
In a way their attitudes reflect the characters they play. Franklin's chirpy optomism is not far removed from the survival-oriented Ann Romano. And Hessman's resigned cynicism suggest a Johnny Fever in his soul -- although the producers originally wanted him to play a different character. He insisted on, and got, the role of Fever.
Franklin sees it mainly in thank-your-lucky-stars terms. "I always think each year will be the last," she says from behind a button nose and pale freckles. "I thought "Soap" was going to wipe us out. I thought 'Charlie's Angles' -- which almost did -- was going to wipe us out." But "One Day" finished its fifth season last spring among the top-10 rated shows on the air. This year it has scored better ratings than "Archie Bunker's Place," the Carroll O'Connor egorama that precedes it on Sunday nights.
Hessman is more fatalistic than Frankli, perhaps justifiably. After moving WKRP all over the schedule until it became a firm hit, CBS this season exiled it to Siberia -- 8 p.m. on Saturdays, at the beginning of a schedule that looks like the beach at Normandy on June 7, 1944.
"It's the gatepost to the elephant's graveyard," moans Hessman, who was probably born to growl. "People ask me what time the show is on now and it's been moved so often I have a hard time remembering."
Although "WKRP made consistently strong showings last year (when it aired on Monday nights), its season premiere in the new time slot got dismal ratings. The Nov. 15 episode ranked 46th out of 56 rated programs for the week and achieved only a dreary 26 percent of the viewing audience.
But Hesseman, 40, is not shivering in his pin-striped purple trousers (and grey suede shoes) over the possibility of an axe falling. "The notoriety, the 'TVQ,' all the nonsenses that goes with recognitin out of a television series it seems to me is just that, nonsense," says Hesseman. "It's enjoyable only occasionally. But it means nothing unless you use it, take advantage of it somehow to do other roles. "I'm not an actor who is always looking for a television series. I'd like to think there is more to it than that. In fact, I resisted doing a series as a regular performer for a number of years,"
It's 10:30 in the morning, which is early for Hesseman, especially since he'd been awakened at 6 a.m. to appear on a local radio show. He looks like an annoyed frog ready to croak a cranky ree-deep. "I have no eyes at this at this point," he mourns. "My brains have gone bye-bye."
For Hesseman, being hailed in public as Johnny Fever is not much of a thrill and can literally be a pain, as when a woman grabbed him while he walked accross the floor of a Las Vegas casino -- ripping his shirt. "It's just No Consideration," he says. "It's a violation of another person, and I think it's fueled by People magazine, Rona Barrett, Us, you know all that crap that encourages vicarious living. People don't go out and do things and experience them for themselves any more. They just sit at home and read about it or watch television. I find that to be a sad state of affairs."
Then how can he in good conscience appear on television?
"I never said I was appearing on television 'in good conscience.'"
"I'm an actor and I like to work. I think CBS as well as ABC and NBC have made it fairly clear that what their creative elements might want or desire or need has no bearing on the decisions they make. Basically all we're looking at through their eyes is ad revenue. The content of the show is of little concern to them.
"I'm sure there are CBS executives who'll read that and say, 'Oh, it's Hesseman shooting off his mouth again, what does he know? And it may be a broad and unfair generalization. But I don't care. When I look at television as a whole. I don't feel I'm that far off. It's crap !
"And feeling that way how do I justify appearing on television?" He casts a sinister glance, thinking he has clearly anticipated a question before it was asked. "Well I don't have to justify it! I don't!"
Having just won this argumant with himself, Hessman recalls his early years, ending in the low- to mid- '70's, with The Committee, a San Francisco-based satirical troupe that often lampooned, among other targets, television. He recalls his announcer's spiel for the group's version of a TV game show: "Yes, it's Greed" -- the show that all America is watching, the game that all America is playing! 'Greed' -- the show that awards prizes to its contestants not on the basis of who they are, not on thebasis of how much they know, but solely on the basis of how much they want those prizes!" *tWould he be embarresed to meet another former Committee member now that he's sold out to prime-time networkTV? "Most of us, he says, "have clearly become the people we used to satirize. Life is no less filled with irony than it was then."
He insists he doesn't bother himself with the ratings for "WKRP": "It's just madness, it's totally extraneous to what I do for a living. I don't care, I don't want to concern myself, I don't give it a moment's thought."
But he does note of the show's competition last year, "Little House on the Prairie," that "if they're in trouble, all they have to do is blind another child." And he does contribute his own ideas to the character of Johnny Fever, though he now avoids script meetings attended by the represenative from CBS standards and practices.
Howard Hesseman couldn't be as compleat a grouch as he pretends or he wouldn't be able to suffuse Johnny Fever with so much world-weary wit and make the contribution to "WKRP" that he has. "I don't walk around depressed all the time, he says, "I think I'm just by nature a complainer. I seem to be a negatively oriented person. I don't know where that comes from and I'm not sure why."
"One Day at a Time" was a second-season replacement on CBS in 1975, and no one expected it to go all that far. As it turns out, it went nowhere: it stayed and stayed and stayed.
Bonnie Franklin, who plays Ann Romano in the series, can't fully explain the success of what is really a plain, low-profile, bread-and-butter show. "I can't figure it out. I can't fanthom it." However, she sputters, I don't think the title helps a bit." It is considered one of the worst titles in television, but better than those discarded in the last-minute scramble to give the show a name -- among them, "Hello Ann." Tandem Productions later revived that one for the lowly and expired "Hello, Larry."
I'm proud of this show," Franklin says. "It really is, you know, true-to-life, hopefully as true as one can do it in 22 minutes. I think we do a good show and I think that some of the episodes are really terrific."
Franklin, who is 36 (Ann Romano is 38) is asked how true-to-life the show can be when, though set in Indianapolis, it is filmed in Hollywood and created by people whose biggest worry in life is whether their Mercedes boil over. You'd think they'd get lots of mail from people saying. "Who do you think you're kidding?"
"Well, we don't get that kind of letter," says Franklin, refusing to be peeved by the question. "First of all, we represent a Midwest family and I think people take us for real life. They don't say, 'Oh, Bonnie Franklin, what does she know? Besides, I don't drive a Mercedes. I drive a '71 Buick. With bad hoses.
"I have received letters that say, 'I can't stand you,' and 'I think you're awful and you think you're cute,' but I haven't received letters that say the show really doesn't mirror what's happening."
The show appears to fit one pre-cut pattern: the single-parent syndrome prevalent in domestic sitcoms. In the '50s, sitcom families came complete with father and mother and two or three children. Now it's hard to find a home on television that isn't broken.
"Well I think there are a lot of single parents in life, and that's probably why there are so many on television." Franklin says. "God knows I get a lot of letters from folks saying, 'Yeah, I just went through that' or 'Oh God, how could you?' or 'I wish that were happening to me.'"
Frankin married Marvin Minoff in August and acquired a family in the process: his two teen-age sons by a previous marriage. "Talk about life mirroring art!" she says. "I am now the stepmother of two teen-age children and I feel like I'm living 'One Day at a Time.' It's just horrifying."
"One Day" is from Norman Lear, and that means the characters must run the gauntlet of social issues and trendy crises. Last year Ann Romano had a heart attack, a side effect of the ascendancy of women to more active roles in the business world.
This year, says Franklin of her character, "I'm going to collect unemployment and I start my own company in partnership with this man that I can't stand. He is an artist and I write the copy. And of course that grows -- eventually, not right away -- into a love relationship, and he will gain custody of a 12-year-old son. So now we're going to start again with a boy, a teen-ager, in the thing, so there'll be the same kind of problems that we had before except a different sex.
"But Ann's definitely not going to get married and she won't get engaged because then the whole get engaged because then the whole gist of the series goes right down the toilet."
The addition of new cast members is partly to compensate for the fact that one daughter, Mackenzie Phillips, has left the show due to well-publicized personal problems. The other daughter, Barbara, played by Valerie Bartinelli, will remain, and a key question for loyal viewer of the show is whether this year at last Barbara, will be allowed to lose her virginity. Probably not, even through she turns 20 this season.
Viewers may expect "One Day at a Time" to be true to life, but not so true that if hurts their illusions: A saucy Tandem spokesman says that a survey was taken on college campuses and it was found that while 80 percent of those responding saw no stigma to losing one's virginity at 19, they still wanted Barbara to retain hers.
Franklin does not despair about being a part of the evil monster called television. She doesn't watch it, of course, but few people working in television do. She does feel comfortable with the way "One Day at a Time" represents the American household, and she should. It's not the usual baloney.
"I know it's just a television show, and I don't think that I am changing the way the world is structured or saying the world or whatever. But I do think that not only do we entertain, but sometimes we strike chords that do make people think a little bit. To me, that's important.