Rise and Shine
Were Mariette Hartley an ordinary person, this December afternoon would be a pretty good moment to worry about her. Her husband is 3000 miles away in California, rattling around in their packed-up house and "going to the movies every night." Their eleven-year-old son, Sean, feels insecure about starting in a new school and chagrined at being chased by his new female classmates. Eight-year-old Justine is trying to figure out how one adjusts to Manhattan without forfeiting a Valley Girl pedigree.
And then there's Mom-newly hired as a co-host for The Morning Program, CBS' latest attempt to fill the a.m. time slot that has been one of the network's greatest embarrassments. Those who've taken their best show at what was formerly called CBS Morning News include Diane Sawyer, Bill Kurtis, Sally Quinn, Phyllis George and Maria Shriver. A proposed pairing of Linda Ellerbee and Charles Osgood-described to Ellerbee as "a combination of National Public Radio's All Things Considered and Rolling Stone-never came to fruition.
Now, Hartley and co-host Rolland smith are taking on Good Morning American and Today with a ninety-minute show that premieres January 12th. The only network morning show with a studio audience. Hartley describes it as being "like The Tonight Show, but in the morning instead." Sure, Hartley has already earned public love for her stint as James Garner's back-talking buddy in the Polaroid commercials. But she knows the public also loves to watch famous people fall flat on their faces, and she's already had one unsuccessful three-week stint as a morning-show host, when she subbed for a honeymooning Jane Pauley on Today in 1980.
"It wasn't an easy experience, but it was a learning one-I did find out I liked interviewing," she recalls, as she eats lunch in a restaurant near the CBS Broadcast Center in New York. "At the time, I was just fighting for my life." As for her latest challenge, "Sure, I'm scared! For instance, where is my energy going to come from for my family and for the show?"
It's a familiar dilemma, but then Hartley's entire life story is a stirring saga of survival amid career and domestic pressures. Now forty-five, Mariette has seen all extremes; family joy and tragedy, well-publicized flops and quiet successes, good Shakespeare and bad sitcoms. What makes Hartley truly out of the ordinary is her willingness-her eagerness almost-to feel all of the extremes so deeply.
"I think my strength as a performer is my ability to straddle the fence between comedy and tragedy," she says. "I love pulling one into the other, too. My greatest strength as a person?" She frowns. "I guess I get caught in it a lot, but I think it's my ability to put myself in someone else's shoes."
Empathy? Mariette's frown deepens and then segues into a puckish grin. "I guess so, but that sounds so sucky. And the flip side, of course, is that I feel responsible for it all, for the feelings in other people that I become aware of." She sighs and cradles her handsome face in her hands. "I'd make a terrible therapist."
It's therapy that helped Hartley keep her warm, winning personality, that put her life back together after her father's suicide in 1963. "I think that what happened to me was that my brain short-circuited as a result of my dad's suicide coming around the time of my successes. I really began to feel that the minute I started becoming successful, somebody would die. It took me a long time to get all of those wires uncrossed-and I still have trouble with it."
"Just recently, my first week back here in New York-everything is happening perfectly, right? I'd found the school for Sean and Justine, I'd found a house for all of us, I was getting ready for my new job. And every single day, I'd hear a gunshot."
"I was thrown for a loop when I realized the gunshots were going off again. I just went, ‘Oh, my God, this is never going to leave me, is it?'"
On the surface, Mariette's early life didn't look hard. Her homemaker mother, Polly, was "a cross between Ruth Gordon and Kate Hepburn." Her maternal grandfather was John B. Watson, the leader of psychology's behaviorist school. Her father, Paul Hartley, was a successful New York advertising executive. (Her brother, Tony, is one year Mariette's junior.) Mariette was extroverted, precociously funny ,bright and clearly talented. Sh acted professionally at age eight, made the cheerleading squad in high school and got voted Most Popular: "I was compulsive about conforming to the ‘right' things."
But under the surface, her youth was arid. Thanks in great measure to John Watson's influence, very little emotion was expressed in the Hartley household. There was also very little touching. Watson believed these displays of love spoiled children somehow.
"I never knew hot to talk-there was tremendous repression in our house. And I still have trouble sleeping in my husband's arms, you know? Se, this is why I've never felt like I've said too much in interviews. I've just had too many responses from people-kids, women in elevators saying, ‘Gee, I've been through that, too. Thanks for sharing it.'"
After doing considerable stage work in her high-school years, sixteen-year-old Hartley won a full scholarship to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon), renowned for its theater department. She left after her freshman year to apprentice with organizations like Chicago's Goodman Theatre and Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park. It was a lot of success at a very young age.
A few years later, Hartley married a publicist and moved to Los Angeles. Sam Peckinpah cast her in 1962's ;Ride the High Country, and MGM signed her to a seven-year contract. But Mariette never finished the first year. Shortly after a difficult divorce, during which her parents moved West to help her, Mariette became ill. A doctor misdiagnosed it as hepatitis, and the ensuing treatment only made her more sick. When she was too weak to go on an overseas shoot, MGM canceled her contract. Mariette went back to work in television and theater.
The hope was that Paul Hartley would, at least, concentrate on his artwork and long-neglected creative enterprise. But the new start never took root. Instead, her father's emotional health deteriorated rapidly. Mariette and her mother were having brunch one day when they heard a gun go off in another room. Paul Hartley had shot himself in the head.
For Mariette, the choice was clear. "Either you die with a person, or you're brought to life. You have a choice. My choice was survival," recalls Hartley, her face suffused with a slow-moving pain. "I mean, when you're seen it happen, and you loved that person more than anybody in the whole world..." Her voice is low, and she picks her words at a cautious pace. "Rather than being chaotic like it used to be, it becomes a clear grief. Still, I have to watch those demons like a hawk."
For a long time, Hartley put acting on the back burner and concentrated on more pressing work with her psychotherapist. When she returned to acting, many of the opportunities of the past had dwindled. She started doing a large number of commercials and guest shots on television series. An orange-juice advertising job introduced her to a French producer-director named Patrick Boyriven.
"It was instantaneous attraction, but we both had fears." Boyriven remembers. S"Shed just come to New York on the red-eyed, and she had to be on my set at 8:30 a.m. After a night like that, you're empty, yes? She arrived, and she was just so there-she didn't let anyone feel her tiredness. I was so impressed, I sent her flowers."
When asked where his wife's emotional resilience comes from, Boyriven stops to think. "I don't know. She can learn so much from pain. Resiliency is not immunity, though-the worst time since I've know her was after she filed Silence of the Hearts in 1985. It was a TV movie about teen suicides. It took her seven months to recover from that role, and her depression entered into our home life. But she gave purpose to all that pain, just like she gave purpose to her dad's death. I envy that. She's such a lesson to me."
With new stability and a new family, Hartley didn't lose much sleep over being pigeonholed as "just a television actress." She simply went about beaconing one of television's best. She won three Clio awards for her work in the Polaroid commercials, seven Emmy nominations and one Emmy for-would you believe-an episode of The Incredible Hulk. The Polaroid spots granted her the fiscal freedom to pick her projects with care. One of the TV movies she chose to do was Drop-Out Father with Dick Van Dyke in the fall of 1982. The script had been written by Bob Shanks, a go-creator of the ABC megahit Good Morning America.
"I made a note to myself in 1982 that Mariette was a woman who could really do a morning show well," Shanks says. "She has that curiosity about people and life, and extreme empathy for people's pleasures and pain. There's also the unedited honesty and that delicious sense of humor.
From 1982 onward, Hartley and Boyriven shared a close friendship with Shanks and his wife. When CBS hired Shanks to conjure up an a.m. entertainment show, Shanks called Hartley immediately. "I knew Mariette was the one," he says. "But it took a couple of meetings, and some persuading."
Shanks found Roiland Smith among the ranks of New York's hard-news anchormen. "It was energy at first conversation," Smith says of his how's-the-chemistry meeting with Mariette. Like everyone connected to the new venture, Smith is cracking with starting-gun confidence. "This is not a show with legendary problems. This is a whole new program."
And for Hartley, it's a new risk in a lifetime full of wire walking with no nets. As if she didn't have enough to keep her busy, Hartley's also at work on a one-woman stage show. "I told Patrick, when I started singing in public,'You've got to be honest with me about this. I don't wanna go up there and make a fool of myself.'"
Hartley slaps one hand over her face and laughs. "On talk shows, and in other things, too, I think people get afraid I'm going to say something and embarrass them. I also think that's one of the things people pay me for. Anyway, everyone who's part of my family and my extended family-pardon the expression-there's not an ass kisser in the group. I have a feeling that has stood me in terrific stead."
And that feeling means she'll keep talking, as frankly as ever. "I've heard it said that we're as sick as the secrets we keep. Boy, do I think that's true. So my kids and I cuddle and spoon all the time and they have permission to say what they want to say. Because I know the minute they start holding stuff in, it's going to cause trouble and come bursting out in some other way. When I've seen the effect that talking and opening up has on people, I can't stop doing it myself. No way. That's the truth of my life."
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