Mariette Hartley Learns How Not to Host ‘The Today Show'
After 20 years of playing roles in everything from Shakespeare to The Incredible Hulk, Mariette Hartley has finally become a star-playing herself.
That charmingly wry, irreverent woman making fun of James Garner's Polaroid sales pitches on TV is the real Mariette Hartley, who at age 40 is one of the hottest properties on television.
"Success in a career sometimes come in strange ways," says a bemused Hartley. "You grab it in whatever way it happens. When life says you're on, you better be ready."
When NBC called, Hartley was ready.
"NBC President Fred Silverman told me he would change my life," says Hartley, "and proceeded to offer me a five-to seven-year contract to replace Jane Pauley as co-host of The Today Show."
Once unchallenged, the show is losing the ratings war with ABC's Good Morning America, and Silverman thought Hartley would be just the right kind of competition for the ABC show's actor-host David Hartman.
"The Today Show is dying," says Hartley, "and Silverman wanted some pizzazz, some loosening up."
it's not as if Hartley needed the work. She earns $100,000 a year for 16 days of work for Polaroid. Which leaves her plenty of time for he r husband and two young children (her first priority) and acting (her second).
"But I couldn't not try it," says Hartley. "What if I did love it?"
So for three weeks-while Jane Pauley joined the ranks of June brides-Mariette Hartley played Mariette Hartley on what she now calls "The Titanic Show."
She didn't love it.
"I almost quit before my time was up," says Hartley. "The toughest part was dealing with the news department and being taken seriously. I felt like I was in the enemy camp. Silverman put me on the show, and then he disappeared. He went to Hawaii. There was very little support. I wrote him a telegram-"‘Wish you were here, ‘cause nobody else is.'"
"Mariette Hartley is a very, very nice lady," says Today Show executive produce Steve Friedman. "But you know, people have been working with Jane Pauley for four years. Jane has many friends and fans, and there was some resentment over the press attention Hartley got."
"What an eye-opener that experience was," says Hartley. "All these international news-people-supposedly broad-minded and broad-souled. I think they're so in love with the news and their own world-it's a clique, and very hard to break into. I didn't make a dent until the third week.
"I don't think anyone thought showbiz people know anything. I would suggest interview subjects, were told they weren't such great ideas, and then they would be assigned to somebody else. I wasn't given anything to do. I felt like the highest paid dress extra in the world."
"Well, I wouldn't have her talking about heroin or SALT II," says Friedman. "Nor would I ask her to interview Henry Kissinger or some Senator. people just coming in like that tend to be ga-ga about public figures, and the interview becomes a filibuster. She did very well with the one-legged football player and the blind golfers."
"My favorite moment happened off the air," says Hartley. "Tom Brokaw has friends who are actors and yet he feels that, as bright as they are, they are not articulate. So he said how astonished he was that Sidney Potier-with whom he'd just taped an interview-had been so articulate. Gene Shalit agreed and said "You know, it's a curious thing, but I have found that the second tier of actors are generally the most articulate"-second tier meaning second banana.
"I let it all pass. I consider myself an articulate actor, and I don't consider myself a second-tier actor. Potier is not a second-tier actor, either. After watching the Potier tape, I said to Tom, "You know, watching Potier is like watching a burning coal." And Shalit turned to me and said, "Gee, that's very good." "Yes," I answered, we second-tier actresses once in a while can be articulate. Want to see the third tear- and I leaned over and brushed an imaginer tear from my eye. Shalit loved it."
"It's not that actors aren't smart," says Brokaw. "But when they move into other areas-subjects other than acting. Paul Newman came to the studio one day full of facts and figures on arms control-and then he just had a terrible time getting it out. Jane Fonda can be the same way."
"Nor does The Today Show trust its audience," Says Hartley. "One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare is that he trusted an audience to move quickly with him. One moment tragedy, the next comedy. Back and forth. People go with you. The Today Show staff doesn't think you can listen to news after people get a little silly."
" It was fun to have Mariette Hartley here," says Brokaw. "She's open, honest and snappy. But this is a news program, produced by the news department. I don't think Mr. Silverman appreciates how difficult this show is-the time keys, the news, the weather-all the varied subjects. We don't need imported pizzazz."
Hartley is happily back on the West Coast with her own-albeit "inarticulate"-kind. And she's none the worse for wear.
"There was a day all of that would have really shook me," says Hartley. "But not anymore.
"I like me. And I think that's my appear. People can sense that I'm really pretty happy. I have a real husband-who isn't Jimmy Garner-and two wonderful kids. There's a safety about that. I'm non-threatening. I'm genuine. You can see my wrinkles and the gray in my hair. It's a joy to be recognized as someone who is concerned about what really matters-one's relationships, one's children, one's finding a way to deal with those things. It means something to me to have people-women especially-say ‘We like who you are, and we really identify with you and we feel good about you.'"
It has taken almost all of Mariette Hartley's 40 years to feel good about herself.
Acting since the age of 10, Hartley always wanted to be a star. Parlaying years of stage work on the East Coast into an MGM contract on the West Coast, 22-year-old Hartley was "the most promising young ingénue in years." Four years later, her father had committed suicide, her first marriage had ended in divorce, and a 30-pound overweight Hartley had become a 26-year old has-been.
Hartley found out both things were true. She had been compulsive about acting, but acting was what she wanted to do.
"I realized that stardom was my father's dream. I was this little automaton trying to be what he wanted me to be. Stardom had nothing to do with what was really happening. I let go of the dream."
She joined Overeater's Anonymous and a little theater group over a bowling alley in Burbank.
"It took a year of crawling back. I looked at people doing commercials and despite my supposedly sensitive ego, I tried them too. They gave me a sense of freedom and financial security"- and her second husband, Patrick Boyriven, a producer and director of commercials.
"To Patrick I give credit for helping me relax as a person-and as an actress. I am much more fluid, much more able to be vulnerable. There is a feeling of total ease, of knowing whatever happens, it's going to work out."
Hartley's agent called about the Polaroid commercials just as she was getting parts again in television movies and series.
"She said, GO!" laughs Hartley. "I went. I've since sent her a gift for forcing me on that cattle call. The Polaroid ads have given me lots of money for not much work-and such incredible visibility."
Her Polaroid ad-libbed glibness has made her a regular on the West Coast talk circuit-and it was that Mariette Hartley that NBC's Silverman wanted for The Today Show.
Hartley would like to parlay her new stardom as a television "personality" back into recognition as an actress.
"I want to do just films now," says Hartley. And she's started her own production company to do things "that I really can take chances with."
"CBS is looking at one of our TV movie scripts. It's called,' Teacher, Teacher, I Declare.' It's a story of a homosexual woman who is found by one of her students hugging and kissing her roommate. It's handled with humor at first-until she realizes the effect the incident is having on her pupils. The water gets deeper and deeper. CBS is interested in the script only if I play the teacher.
That's the way things are going these days. I remember when people would say, ‘Hartley? She can't do anything.'"
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