"We'd come to the end of a wonderful day and we kissed each other and went home," comedienne Betty White recalls with a sign. "Next thing I knew I was home and sitting on the telephone with Grant Tinker, who said he had some bad news. Grant came over that night and then we knew it was the end."
Sandess covers Betty White's usually cheery face as she discussed that day, Nov. 17, when Tinker, the head of Mary Tyler Moore Productions, told her her series had been axed by CBS.
Tonight, the last recorded "Betty White" episode will appear on television, one of a half-dozen CBS casualties that ironically failed to make the network cut last fall. Tonight's episode deals with the possible cancellation of the make-believe television program of which Joyce, is the star. In the screen version the show is miraculously saved from extinction. Not so in reality.
White and the other actors joke tonight about jumping off the roof after hearing they may be canceled, but there was more protective, professional detechment than comedy when the real cast learned its fate.
The cast had just wrapped up its scheduled production last November and dispersed, fully expecting to return to do future shows. For that reason there was no farewell party, no wake, at the MTM studios, and word of the decision spread privately. White herself picked up the telephone and informed fellow cast members John Hillerman and Georgia Engel. MTM officials told others.
"There's sadness but there's survival, too," White said recently. "You have to walk on. I wouldn't leave this business for anything in the world. It's the only game there is for me."
Others, including Engel and Hillerman, had a less philosophical approach, although closings and cancellations usually are a staple of the actor's life. Perhaps only in Los Angeles and New York can ont spot so many familiar, it no famous, faces standing patiently in line at the unemployment office.
For stars there are little benefits, White admits, like finding time to shop, or see the kids or visit old friends. For now she appears content to continue working on local game shows and playing a lead role in an upcoming CBS television movie called "Wild Horse Annie."
But the experience of "The Betty White Show," for which MTM had high hopes in a slow year, has left a certain residue of bitterness among the cast and executives who made the show for CBS. For White, clearly the show's star, it means that she'll think twice before taking among series assignment.
"A new series? No, I don't want to hear about it," she says, holding her hands over her ears. "There is sadness in me I can't ignore - and a lot of embarrassment, too. You fell you promised so much and delivered so little."
"Nobody was ready for it, our ratings and reviews were pretty damn good," recalls Bob Ellison, executive producer of the show. "When we came up that day to do that last show we thought we'd be on for years. It was like being hit on the head by a two-by-four."
Ellison, once a consultant to the grandly successful "Mary Tyler Moore Show," says the biggest problem now is to put the experience aside. "Like everyone else, we're trying to forget it and get on to something else. You just can't sit around bitching over the past."
Ellison himself is already at work on "Your Place or Mine?" a new comedy MTM will start shooting in February, hopefully for CBS.
To an actor like John Hillerman, who co-started as Joyce's ex-husband, the cancellation seems to be a more permanent blow.
"I feel terribel about it - it feels like I've had a death in the family," Hillerman, a veteran character actor, said gravely. "It's been a traumatizing, discouraging experience. "I'm still recovering from the loss of the best part I've had in 15 years."
The failure has made him pessimistic about his future in television comedy and he says he has rejected several scripts since the show was canceled (a performance as guest star of "Hawaii Five-O" has not yet aired).
"The show was watchable by intelligence people - it wasn't 12-year-old drivel," he adds. "This may be the end of the era of sophisticated adult comedy. If you look at the top-rated shows, the Laverne & Shirleys, maybe we might as well all quit."
Georgia Engle, once the daffy Georgette of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," has been staying at her New York apartment most of the time since the cancellation. She refused to be interviewed during a recent trip to Los Angeles to play in an episode of NBC's successful series "The Love Boat."
At MTM studios and at CBS, where relatively high-level comedy has been a prime-time staple for years, depressing conclusions are largely rejected. MTM president Tinker believes the show just did not have the time to develop and takes personal blame for the network pulling the plug on it so early. Even in the ego-crazy world of entertainment, self-doubt sometimes follows failure.
"Maybe it's all my fault, maybe I didn't sell the network enough. I blame myself, really. I think the creative fault is within ourselves," Thinker admits. But he adds: "The networks tend to be a little knee-jerk these days about what's not going to make it. "There's sort of a stench of death which can happen from all the negative thinking and talking that was going on."
Tinker points out that the White show won a "respectable" 27 share in the most recent Nielsen ratings; making it, he claims, among the top-rated shows of the past season. He charges that CBS, perhaps over-concerned with its second-place standing to high-flying ABC, may have "overreacted" against the show.
Not so says CBS vice president Grant. "We were very distressed about the show.We were sorry the public did not enjoy the show as much as we did. But it was not being appreciated, so we cut it out."
The series' chief sin, in Grant's estimation, was that after winning a high 35 share on its debut, it fell to a mere 27 share in later episodes - below the 30 share mark which Grant called "the line between life and death."
Meawhile, since every true Hollywood tale is supposed to have a happy ending, there is a bright spot in the gloom: Carey Kaye. A few days after cancellation, Kaye, who played the sexpot actress usually in conflict with White's character, was offered a lead in an upcoming NBC series. From her, no forced backstage tears.
"I had a one-day depression after they canceled but I was easily placated by the new job," Kaye concedes. "I was third or fourth billing on that show, but now I have a lead, so it really wasn't so heartbreaking."
In fact, she's convinced things have turned out exactly as they should have. "Let's face it, the show needed to define itself a little more," she says bluntly. "I don't know how much people related to a television show within a television show. I think everyone on 'Betty White' was just a little too glib. All I know is that a lot of people out there didn't like it. My mother told me so."