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Bonnie Franklin, who played a mom for our times, dies of cancer


Actress Bonnie Franklin in 2008 (Ali Goldstein / NBC Newswire) Actress Bonnie Franklin in 2008 (Ali Goldstein/NBC Newswire)

 On Friday, actress Bonnie Franklin, age 69, died of pancreatic cancer.

Most people will remember the red-headed woman with the wide smile as the star of the 1970s sitcom “One Day at a Time.”

Franklin had previously worked as a child actress, and on stage, but it was her role as Ann Romano with two teenage daughters that enshrined her in the hearts of a new generation of single moms.

Asked whether she knew that “One Day at a Time” would strike a chord, she replied: “As soon as we went on the air we started receiving a lot of letters. The letters were saying, ‘This is my life. This is what I’m going through. This is what my mother is like.’ And so we pretty quickly got the idea that we were touching something.”

Today, fans and journalists are using words like “steadfast” and “cool” to describe the character Franklin played. Ann Romano was loosely based on the life of show co-creator (with Norman Lear) actress Whitney Blake, also known as the mother of actress Meredith Baxter.

I always thought Bonnie Franklin had a lovely, open face, but I did not watch “One Day at a Time.” I only knew her through pop culture.

And through one episode I chanced upon while switching TV channels.

If I recall correctly, Franklin’s character Ann Romano was dismayed to find she’d been referred to as middle-aged, despite the fact she was only in her mid-thirties. After all, she reasoned, the average life span is … her voice trailed off as she realized average life span was (at the time) about 72 years.

Halfway there.

That’s how, for me, the point hit home. Writers take inspiration wherever they find it, be it sitcoms or the sidewalk. I’m younger than Bonnie Franklin, but by just a decade.

Suddenly my thirties didn’t seem so young anymore. How many summers did I have left? One day I calculated not just the summers, but the days — about 11,000. How could I get to all the places I wanted to go, in the world and in my mind, in such a short time?

Little did I know that in the not-so-distant future, 11,000 days would seem like an eternity when, at age 48, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After that, I hoped to see 49. Maybe even 50. Age 59 seemed a fairy tale. But here I am.

Six months ago, the world learned that Bonnie Franklin had pancreatic cancer. No one is more versed on deadly cancers than other survivors of deadly cancers. Even so, we can name case after case of patients who defied the odds. There’s always hope.

Although Bonnie Franklin was best known for her portrayal of a single mother, the actress herself had no children. Neither did I. But I did take note of the life depicted in the show. It seemed that, with two growing daughters and the comic attentions of the building supe, one could cobble together a life out of anything, if your aim was true.

“One Day at a Time” was canceled some 30 years ago, but the speed with which social media lit up with the news of Franklin’s death caused one observer to comment: “Another reminder of how far backwards network TV has regressed in relevant, meaningful programming.”

In the episode I watched so long ago, Ann Romano fretted that her life was, by law of averages, half over. No one could know that the forecast would be so accurate for the actress who played her.

Donna Trussell is a Kansas City writer. Follow her on Twitter @donnatrussell.

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