Saturday, May 10, 2008

Top Ten: My Favorite TV Mothers

Here's another totally subjective list, just in time for Mother's Day: my personal list of some of my favorite television mothers, in no particular order. Of course I do have to start with clearly one of the all-time best:

Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver

While everybody thinks they know what June Cleaver was about -- dishwashing in pearls and all that, those things are just the easy-to-mock fashion giggles from a bygone era. June Cleaver was well-informed -- you often saw her reading the newspaper. She came from an educated and well-off family -- remember her rich (but out-of-touch) Aunt Martha who wanted Beaver to wear short pants? Plus she had a wonderful husband in the calm, amused and amusing Ward Cleaver, anything but a martinet and a reflective father who, along with his wife June, always tried to act intelligently and reasonably in their childrearing. Just because June Cleaver was calm and supportive, she was no pushover. Leave it to Beaver is -- but you need to actually watch it to get this about it, and not just think you know the show -- a show with a definite sense of the absurd and (especially in the episodes before Beaver grows up, a bit awkwardly) it's genuinely hilarious. June Cleaver is a pop culture icon, and better even than that, she lives up to it. Here's a clip from a (typically stupid and barely informed) Good Morning America presentation at the time of the 50th anniversary of the show, but it's good to see most of the cast together again.

Barbara Bel Geddes as Ellie (Eleanor Southworth) Ewing on Dallas

I wasn't even a fan of the show, but occasionally liked to tune in to see this amazing actress, a veteran of stage and screen, plying
her trade magnificently and gracefully among the rest of the series' histrionics. Bel Geddes had such a unique voice, a lovely rich instrument that made you crave each word from her. Barbara Bel Geddes was true class, and the show was lucky to have had such a wonderful actress portraying its resident matriarch. Here's a clip from an episode where she's having a conversation with little John Ross, J.R. and Sue-Ellen's young son.

Harriet Nelson as Harriet Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

There was something extremely calming about Harriet Nelson. There was something extremely calming about her husband Ozzie too. In fact, the whole family was pretty darn calm, but that didn't stop America from taking to the benign but beguiling suburban appeal of this gently humorous series. Harriet obviously got the joke, her bemused smile showing us she was in on the whole thing, and also that she clearly and dearly loved her immensely creative and deceptively hilarious husband. (Jazzy, too. Did any 1950s sitcom have a cooler end theme than TAoOaH?)Her two sons were decent guys, on TV and in real life, and talented too, traits they clearly learned from their Mom and Pop. Here's a clip of Harriet and her beloved Ozzie singing "Catch a Falling Star" from an episode of the show.

Marion Ross as Marion Cunningham on Happy Days

Happy Days hasn't aged as well as some sitcoms, and it's pretty easy to see why if you watch an episode: those out-of-control studio audiences turned the tapings into an "ooh" and "aah" fest that effectively killed any chance of anything lasting and brilliant making it through. (If you don't believe me, catch an episode from the first two seasons when the show was a single-camera filmed show; what a difference. Check out the uncut "Haunted" and "The Howdy Doody Show" -- both are hilarious.) But still, Marion Ross was a funny and likable television mother, and a charming presence on the show. Fonzie was crazy about her -- remember when they took dancing lessons together? -- and she was one of the few characters to stand up to his bravado, as in the clip below. It would be impossible not to like Marion Cunningham.

June Lockhart as Dr. Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space

I already know that I'll get no complaints about this favorite mom from my fellow Nose-ites. Could Judy, Penny and Will Robinson have wished for any better mother than this beautiful biochemist? As played by the TV veteran June Lockhart (who had already upped the TV mom bar by doing such a nice job as Jon Provost's mother on Lassie for several years) Maureen Robinson was a calm and steadying force, applying liberal doses of well-considered motherly advice to help the family through their out-of-this-world ordeal. Though once they were stranded in outer space some of her duties may have become more housewife-ish than scientific, we all knew that John Robinson had a wife who was both a loving companion and his intellectual equal. Here's a segment from a profile of June Lockhart aired in 1991:

Laura Linney as Abigail Adams on HBO's John Adams

Here's a new member of the great mother club. Laura Linney's portrayal of the loving, incisive, supportive and intense Abigail Adams was a highlight of the miniseries. It's particularly nice to be able to put a historical figure on this list, too. The true beauty of Linney's terrific performance is that it was based in fact, the real Abigail Adams being no less impressive than what we saw through those seven amazing episodes. How refreshing it was to see a woman, though living in a time that did not necessarily demand or encourage steep intellectual participation from females, take her deserved place as her husband's helpmate, sounding board and invaluable critic. Linney expertly delineated the indissolvable bond between her and John, along with the tremendous physical tasks expected of her as she often assumed the head of household role while her husband was away, and her ferocious and tender devotion to her children under all variety of circumstances. A wonderful performance all around! Here's a long promo for the miniseries, which will be repeating on HBO in June. (We keep promising our Top Ten John Adams moments, and we're working on them!)

Irene Ryan as Daisy "Granny" Moses on The Beverly Hillbillies

She was actually Jed Clampett's mother-in-law, but Granny ruled the roost as the cantankerous mountain matriarch who never did adjust to life among the rich folk. Completely hilarious, skilled in mysterious backwoods remedies and one of the most delightfully eccentric characters to ever grace television, Granny was the heart of the show. During the show's nine year run, which took the Clampetts from black and white to color, Irene Ryan was an audience favorite without peer. After the end of the show she went on Broadway in Pippin and though she died mid-run, postumously won the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role. Irene Ryan was a natural comedienne with a solid funny bone -- Bob Hope was crazy about her -- and a heart of gold: at her death she established a scholarship for acting students which continues today. The clip below is a wonderful tribute to Ryan set to her famous song from Pippin:

Sharon Gless as Debbie Novotny on Queer as Folk

Showtime's groundbreaking and immensely entertaining Queer as Folk was full of colorful characters, none more so than Debbie Novotny, diner waitress and mother of Hal Spark's comic lovin' Michael. As portrayed by Gless, who had earlier starred to much acclaim with Tyne Daly in Cagney and Lacey, Debbie was the super-proud parent of a gay son, unofficial den mother to all her customers and her son's friends, loyal sister to her ill brother, and a completely delightful and life-affirming part of the show. Sharon Gless' vibrant personality and let-it-all-hang-out performance made Debbie come to brilliant life. What a wonderful modern mother she was, a hard-working broad with a million dollar smile. The clip below is a tribute video which really captures her terrific portrayal:

Jane Wyatt as Amanda on Star Trek

How can one short guest role mean so much to us? In her role as Amanda, the human mother of Mr. Spock, Jane Wyatt made us long to learn more about Spock's mixed Vulcan-Terran heritage. We didn't doubt at all why Vulcan Sarek had decided to marry the brilliant and beautiful schoolteacher Amanda; how could he have resisted her gracious charms, even if it was, after all, illogical? Jane Wyatt had already established herself as mother extraordinaire on the gentle comedy Father Knows Best in the 1950s (she definitely gets an honorable mention here for that role), and turning up as Amanda added such a dimension to our favorite Vulcan's family background. When a serious health crisis threatened the life of her husband Sarek (magnificently played by Mark Lenard), Amanda had to implore her very logical son to remember his human half and come to his aid, as you see in the clip below. She's just wonderful in the role, and reprised Amanda in one of the original cast Star Trek theatrical films, too.

Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay on Maude

And then there's Maude. Bea Arthur's masterful turn as Tuckahoe's most outspoken and hilarious liberal was tailor-made for this larger-than-life talent. Despite all the saucy language on today's sitcoms, none can come close to the truly revolutionary exchange of thoughts and ideas that made Maude both an education and an unforgettable half-hour of comedy. It's finally coming out on DVD, so we can savor again her audacious bon mots and rip-roaring zest for life. Bea Arthur also went on to more hilarity in her equally flamboyant role as Dorothy in The Golden Girls, but I think Maude wins out. Her divorced daughter Carol (played by Adrienne Barbeau) lived with Maude and Arthur (the hang-dog-looking Bill Macy), and their very modern mother/daughter relationship was groundbreaking for television. And funny? Maude is still a very funny series, thanks to Norman Lear and his writers' timeless chops. Don't forget that Maude could pour on the charm when she wanted to -- remember the time she was all set to hate John Wayne when he came for a visit? Adorable! (The episode is on YouTube in three parts but the quality is really bad, but worth taking a look if you haven't seen it for a while.) The clip I've included here is what I said above -- groundbreaking -- as Carol and Maude discuss abortion. You can barely say the word in popular entertainment anymore...we are in dire times, indeed. Take a look here to see how far we've regressed:

So, that's my list. I left out far too many, but it's a start, anyway. Happy Mother's Day!


Jane said...

What an absolutely lovely, awesome, fabulous salute to Mother's Day. HRH Lisa, you have outdone yourself this time! This is the best Mother's Day present any TV loving mother could receive. Thank you! I will add one favorite of my own, a little bit more contemporary. I loved Francis Conroy as Ruth Fisher in Six Feet Under. She had a few screws loose, but was a captivating TV mom, nevertheless!

Lisa said...

Thanks for the kind words and an excellent addition, Jane! Ruth was a wonderful character with such interesting children, too. I want to see you write something amazing about that show one of these days!

And of course I just remembered I forgot another mother I love on TV -- Caroline Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, which might seem like a sappy choice for me but she was marvelous, as played by the graceful Karen Grassle.

It's amazing how many extraordinary women have played amazing moms on TV, isn't it? I will no doubt be making comments in the future to this -- all the things I just couldn't get my brain to remember when I was putting this together. Also, I actually didn't post this until about 8pm...took a really long time to finish, for some reason. Kept having computer problems -- I think I may have seriously overtaxed my box, as they say! :-)

Jane said...

I do plan to write something about Six Feet Under some day, but I'm still too close to it and would not have the time to edit my thoughts, which are enormous and would probably blow the pages of TFN to smithereens. I think there is actually a book in there somewhere, that's how much it means to me.

Also, I forgot to mention that I actually saw Irene Ryan in Pippin on Broadway, a million years ago. Pippin was the very first Broadway show I ever saw, when I was growing up in NY. It was marvelous.

Scott said...

Lisa, what an AMAZING post this is. It must be a TFN best! The clips, your thoughts... this read (and listen & viewing) was ten times better of an experience than this morning's Sunday LA Times!
Thank you so much!
And Jane, thumbs up to your Francis Conroy pick!
Oh, btw, had computer problems all day and into the night on Friday. Was coming up with errors and going really slow. Hence my triple post in the Lost In Space comments! Happened on my other site as well.

Scott said...

Oh and Jane, did I ever tell you that the "Six Feet Under" final episode haunted me for weeks? Literally haunted me.

Scott said...

And yet one more thing!
Lisa, I love that you recognize the early single camera episodes of "Happy Days" that really resembled "American Graffiti." I go on about that everytime that series comes up in conversation! You and Jane and truely my soul sisters. I think we're kindred TV spirits.

Lisa said...

Scott, thanks for the kind words and I for sure know that we are all kindred souls here. We love TV so much it's pathetic, isn't it? :-)

Thanks again. You know I always love your stuff, too!

amy said...

Finally have a chance to catch up and have thoroughly enjoyed reading these great posts since I've been back in town. Thanks for a wonderful Mothers Day tribute, Lisa! I agree with Scott that it's one of TFN's best!

Dean Treadway said...

An incredible list, with a few surprising choices. But where was Edith Bunker? She's my favorite TV mother! Completely loving and supportive, obviously devoted to her husband and her work in and out of the home, not a pushover but a strong, magnetic warrior for the forces of right over wrong. She'll always be one of my favorite characters in TV history. Even so, an amazing list, Lisa!