By Alan Hurst
It was exactly 70 years ago that television networks in the United States started broadcasting full prime time programming during the week. Television had been around for a while, but it was in the 1948-49 season that things really started to take off with shows like Toast of the Town with Ed Sullivan (eventually morphing into The Ed Sullivan Show) and Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle. Very quickly television would eclipse radio as the top choice for home entertainment, and then very quickly after that it would start to have an impact on movie attendance. Hollywood had to try a lot harder to get people out of the comfort of their living room, and that’s why films of the 1950s started going bigger, wider and more epic in scope.
What television also did, particularly in the fifties and sixties, was to give actresses and singers who had achieved a certain amount of success – in film, radio and records – a second chance. Television proved to be much more hospitable to women of a certain age, and it gave them another outlet for their talents. I’m thinking specifically of women like Dinah Shore, Eve Arden, Ann Sothern, Loretta Young, Shirley Booth, Barbara Stanwyck and, of course, Lucille Ball. Television provided each of them – and quite a few others – with a showcase for their talents that other forms of entertainment never did. The fact that many today still know who these ladies are is a testament to the career longevity that television provided.
And women seemed to have been allowed a more equal footing as well. Many had their own production companies, and in each decade you would see many female driven shows in the top ten, which wasn’t true for films where men tended to dominate the box-office. On television, the fifties saw big ratings for I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, The Loretta Young Show, and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. In the sixties it was The Lucy Show, Hazel, Bewitched, That Girl, and Big Valley. The seventies had The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Police Woman, The Carol Burnett Show, Rhoda, and Maude. In the eighties it was The Golden Girls, Kate & Allie, Murder She Wrote, Designing Women, and Cagney and Lacey. In the nineties you had Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Mad about You, Ally McBeal, and the start of Sex and the City. And it has continued over the last 18 years with shows like Desperate Housewives, Nurse Jackie, Law and Order: SVU, Homeland, Hot in Cleveland, Veep, How to Get Away with Murder, Grace and Frankie among many others.
So, who have been the biggest female stars over the last seventy years? Here are my thoughts on a possible top five. Criteria for me included cultural impact, the ability to sustain a long career with multiple TV incarnations, talent and pure likability.
She is the acknowledged queen of television and a performer whose impact is still being felt today. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that Lucy – as everyone called her – had on television in the fifties, sixties and early seventies. She went from a well-known second tier movie actress whose career was in trouble to probably the biggest star of the century, all thanks to a situation comedy called I Love Lucy (1951-57). The scatterbrained character that she and her writers created was an incredibly funny, loveable and inspired focal point that finally showed the world what Lucille Ball was able to do. Each season has numerous classic bits of comedy, usually delivered by Ball and sidekick Vivian Vance, that still cause people to giggle just at the mention of Vitameatavegim, the chocolate factory, dumping lunch over William Holden, grape stomping, and dancing with a blouse full of eggs. These are all timeless bits executed perfectly by Ball. Following the end of I Love Lucy (during which Ball won two Emmys) and the hour-long Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour specials that followed, she was back with The Lucy Show (1962-68), another successful comedy that never reached the heights of I Love Lucy but was still a top ten staple throughout it’s run. If the laughs were fewer, they were still there, and Ball won two more Emmys for her work. The six-year run of that series was followed by another six-year run with Here’s Lucy (1968-74), this time with her real-life kids. Again, a slight downward shift in quality, but each season produced enough classic Lucy gems to keep audiences coming back until Ball decided to stop the weekly output in 1974. Instead, she focused her attention on numerous guest appearances and specials, all ratings winners, until her death in 1989. She did try one more series in 1986 called Life with Lucy, but it was a mistake. She was still delightful, but the writing let her down and it was cancelled after just a few episodes. But her reputation as the ultimate female clown still stands today.
Mary Tyler Moore
When she died in January 2017 she had not been well for a few years and had stopped doing much except the occasional TV guest appearance since about 2003. But her passing was big news with front page articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and all the networks providing major coverage. Such was the impact of the actress and her eponymous situation comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). Moore started her career with small roles on many shows in the fifties and early sixties and gained a bit of notoriety with the character of Sam on Richard Diamond Private Detective during the 1959-60 TV season (you only saw her legs and heard her voice). But it was The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) that established Moore. Her growth as a comedienne during that first year of the show is evident each week and by the end of its run she had earned two Emmys and even impacted women’s fashion by daring to wear Capri slacks on TV, spiking sales across North America. When her own sitcom debuted four years later, expectations weren’t high. Moore was coming off a string of unsuccessful films and initial reviews weren’t kind, but that soon changed. The Mary Tyler Moore Show represented a huge step forward for situation comedy – Mary, a single woman, was surrounded by realistic characters and the comedy was driven by them – not just a need for a punchline. For seven superb seasons, this was the best written and acted show on television, with Moore its comedic centerpiece. People actually stayed home on Saturday nights to watch and it also proved to be a stepping stone for other major TV talent including Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight and Betty White. For Moore, it represented a pinnacle that she was never able to achieve again on television, although she did well with many acclaimed performances in some excellent TV and feature films. She tried series television again with variety shows, a couple of sitcoms, and a drama but nothing clicked. Still, when your resume includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and a mantel with seven Emmys, your status as one of the greats is assured.
Television’s top sketch comedienne and a very good dramatic actress, Carol Burnett has had one of the longest careers in television history. She first gained prominence as Buddy Hacket’s co-star in a mid-fifties situation comedy called Stanley. It lasted only one season, but Burnett started getting some success in New York clubs which then led to appearances on the top variety shows of the day, including The Ed Sullivan Show. A Broadway success in Once Upon a Mattress was followed by a multi-season run on The Gary Moore Show (1958-67) where Burnett became a star. She appeared on 121 episodes of the variety show, winning an Emmy and cementing her reputation as a fearless comedienne who was not afraid of being the ugly duckling, taking any kind of pratfall just so long as it was funny. It also helped that Burnett was also skilled musical performer who could tackle any kind of production number. After a return to Broadway in the mid-sixties, Burnett headlined her own variety show – The Carol Burnett Show – during it’s 11-season run from 1967-78. It’s probably the best variety show of the era and one of the most loved, with so many classic sketches and musical numbers and a terrific cast of co-stars in Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner. Burnett was the anchor, but she knew enough to give her stock company room to play. After the show ended, Burnett continued to make guest appearances and there was a return to weekly television with the comic anthology Carol and Company in the early nineties and she has her own show on Netflix right now (A Little Help with Carol Burnett). Burnett also had a tremendous impact with a series of successful variety specials where she teamed with the likes of Julie Andrews (three separate specials), Lucille Ball, Dolly Parton, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and many others. She also did well with several dramatic ventures, including the ground-breaking Friendly Fire (1979).
Note: CBS really did have a dream slate of programs in the seventies and during the 1973-74 season they had the best line-up of prime-time television ever on Saturday nights: All in the Family kicked things off at 8:00, followed by M*A*S*H at 8:30, The Mary Tyler Moore Show at 9:00, The Bob Newhart Show at 9:30 and The Carol Burnett Show at 10:00. A classy night of TV that will never be replicated.
It feels like Betty White has been around forever and, as far as television is concerned, she has. She was in an early sitcom in the fifties (Life with Elizabeth) and then another sitcom (Date with the Angels), but neither had much impact. She could be then found as a guest star on any number of comedies, dramas, game shows, and variety programs for the next 20 years, always with a smile and a way with a punchline. But her personae was of someone just a little too sweet. When it came time to cast Sue-Ann Nivens – the superficially sweet but quite acerbic host of a local cooking show on The Mary Tyler Moore Show – the writers wanted a “Betty White type”. Moore suggested they just reach out to Betty White (who was a friend) and the rest is history. White made such an impression with her first appearance in the 1973-74 season that the writers were soon bringing the character back. Audiences loved what White did with the sweet but nasty Sue-Ann and so did Emmy voters. White won Emmys as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy in both 1975 and 1976. After the show ended, she popped up in Mama’s Family and other sitcoms before being cast as one of The Golden Girls (1985-92), a major hit for NBC and one of the best sitcoms of all-time. The show was a ribald look at the lives of four older women, their interactions with each other, their family and men. Along with Beatrice Arthur, Rue MacLanahan, and Estelle Getty, White helped blow up stereotypes around aging – and they did it hysterically. All four actresses won Emmys for their work. White was now heading in to her seventies, but continued working with guest shots on numerous shows, winning more Emmys for her work. She was also starting to carve out a bit of a niche in feature films, including Lake Placid (1999) and The Proposal (2009) before hitting pay dirt again with Hot in Cleveland (2010-2015). This was a variation on The Golden Girls, this time with White as the senior of the group. Another Emmy nomination and a new generation of fans were assured as he entered her nineties.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the most current name on the list, but not really. When you dig in to her career, she has been establishing herself as a TV icon since her time on Saturday Night Live from 1982 to 1985. During her three years on the show she didn’t reach the prominence of some of her male colleagues (Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short), but she did forge a relationship with writer Larry David, the genius behind Seinfeld (1989-98). That show – now acknowledged as one of the great comedies of all-time – had a slow start and it took a while to find an audience, although the critics were champions of the show and ensemble. But by the fourth season, it was a force – both in terms of audience numbers and critical success. Louis-Dreyfus, the only women in the quartet of actors, was a major reason for the show’s success. She was pretty and funny and could be just as nasty and unforgiving as the others. She won her first Emmy during the run of the show out an impressive seven nominations. She followed this with a decent run in the OK sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine, a show about a divorced mom just trying to keep it together. It had a five-season run and Louis-Dreyfus won another Emmy. But her next venture – HBO’s Veep – really pushed her to the top echelon. It was a ground-breaking comedy about an American Vice-President maneuvering through life and Washington, and not always with the greatest of ease. The show is very funny and has been an Emmy darling during its entire run, with Louis-Dreyfus winning six lead actress Emmys to date – officially confirming her coronation as the current Queen of Television.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.