Mariette Hartley's passion for mental health issues-and animals-keeps her upbeat and in front of the camera.
Years ago, as a stage actress unhappily transplanted to Hollywood, Mariette Hartley would sit in front of the television, taking sympathetic, slightly disdainful note of fellow performers who had "sold out" and were doing commercials, for God's sake. "Oh,' I'd say. ‘That poor sucker. Look what he's done.' Never would I compromise myself like that."
The expression "never say never" was made for precisely such moments. Fact is, when most people think of the buoyant Hartley, 60, who, with her red hair and freckles looks like a slightly aging flapper, they flash back to the loopy series of Polaroid ads she appeared in with James Garner in the 1970s and ‘80s.
James Garner: Polaroid's One Step is the simplest camera in the world .You just press one button.
Mariette Hartley: How many does it have?
Hartley: Then that's all you can press.
The commercials, some 250 in all, led to fame, fortune and a fair bit of confusion on the part of viewers, who assumed the giddy pair just had to be real-life husband and wife. In response, Hartley printed up a T-shirt proclaiming I AM NOT JRS. JAMES GARNER, and after the birth of her second child, Justine, outfitted the infant with a T-shirt reading I AM NOT JAMES GARNER'S BABY.
"The Polaroid commercials really were my signature," notes Hartley a bit ruefully. "I'm going to die with it [as] my epitaph: ‘It only took one step.' I would like to have continued a professional relationship with [Garner], done a series," she adds. "I don't know what happened. He tends to work with friends like Julie Andrews.
"I don't want to sound wistful, because my life is so full and so eclectic. But I'm a typical actress. I feel if there isn't any work today, I'm not going to get any work at all."
But no need to pass the hat or the handkerchief. Hartley, the divorced mother of Justine, who is not a 22-year old actress and singer, and Sean, 25, a film-school grad, is still in strong demand. She recently starred in a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Anton Chekov's "The Seagull" at San Diego's prestigious Old Globe Theater and at New York's Lincoln Center in A.R.Gurney's "Ancestral Voices." On television, meanwhile, she splits her time between anchor jobs. A pet owner and professed "animal person," she hosts the syndicated Wild About Animals. She is also seen on CNBC's Healthy Solutions, a magazine show, now entering its fifth season, that covers such diverse topics as the changing face of AIDS in America and the dentist-patient relationship.
"The series touches real lives, and so does Mariette," enthuses Healthy Solutions coexecutive producer Patty Elliott. "Her sincerity really comes through on-camera, and she's so dedicated to what she does that she personally researches every topic features on the show."
Beyond that, Hartley has been an advocate for mental health issues. She cofounded a suicide-prevention foundation, a reaction to her father's 1962 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. "I was sworn to secrecy about my father for 25 years," says Hartley, who went public with the trauma only when she was cast, quite coincidentally, in Silence of the Heart, a 1985 TV-movie about teen suicide. "I get notes from people saying I've saved their lives," she says. "This is going to sound so corny, but the golden thread in the hem of my dress is the work I have been blessed to do with survivors who are often on the verge of their own deaths."
"She's a fabulous woman," says her friend, actress Micheal Learned. "She's the kind of person who's willing to share anything. She's not this Hollywood competitive person." Even so, Hollywood honored he with the 1979 Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for her work on a special two-hour episode of The Incredible Hulk.
Hartley-whose given name is Mary Loretta, but don't call her that-grew up in Weston, Connecticut, where she was raised according to the principles of her behavioral psychologist grandfather, John Watson, a man who believed children should neither be held nor cuddled. The warmth lacking at home would be found in the theater. "When I saw this wonderful children's theater production of ‘Jak and the Beanstalkd,'" she recalls, "I told my mother it was what I wanted to do more than anything in the world."
And do it Hartley would. Asa teen, she studied with John Houseman at Repertory Stratford and Eva Le Gallienne at Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theater. Half a dozen years later, she was playing opposite Joel McCrea in her first movie, "Ride the High Country."
Hartley followed up with appearances on Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Ben Casey and the recurring role of frigid Claire Morton on Peyton Place. In 1983, she costarred with Bill Bixby in the regrettably short-lived CBS series Goodnight, Beantown in which she played a Boston anchorwoman. Then in January 1987, she became a real anchor-woman in the blessedly short-lived CBS Morning Program. Produced by CBS Entertainment, it is best remembered for including comedian Bog Saget in the mix.
"One of my sharpest memories of the show was when I was presented with four policeman's wives," Hartley says. "One husband had just died; one husband was a paraplegic; one wife had just gotten divorced; one was happily married. And I was saying, ‘Oh, you're Irene.' ‘No, I'm Kate.' ‘Now, tell me how you were able to cope when your husband died?' ‘No, my husband didn't die. We're divorced.' It was unbelievable.
"I fell on my face," Hartley says, adding, "I don't mind. Laugh and get up. Regis, are you listening?" She's well aware that Mr. Philbin is looking for a new partner to replace Kathie Lee Gifford. "I'm sure they're going to go with someone young, but I'm finally at a point where I just say, "Guys, come on.'
"I love my age. I love my wisdom."
Mariette Hartley index page