Cloris Leachman’s ‘Phyllis’ Pilot

If you watch the pilot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Phyllis, you notice two things right away: The lady who plays her mother-in-law, Jane Rose, is great, and there’s no way this show is going to be as good as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show lasted for two years, but only on the strength of its scheduling, between Rhoda and All in the Family, but it suffered a stunning string of tragedies before ending for good. The woman who plays Phyllis’ new boss, Barbara Colby, was murdered in a random L.A. shooting two episodes into the show. Soon after, Judith Lowry, who played 86-year-old Mother Dexter, died, and just two months later, her 92-year-old on-screen boyfriend, Burt Mustin, died as well.

Incidentally, as you can see in this clip of the pilot, we never learn what Lars — one of the great unseen sitcom characters of all time — died of. Just that it was unexpected, and he left her no insurance money.


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4 responses

  1. Hi Jennifer

    Enjoyed your entry, thank you. I disagree with your opinion on whether or not PHYLLIS could have been as great as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the beginning at least, it had the stuff to be every bit as good. As I watch the first three episodes, I witness a chemistry between Barbara, Cloris and Richard unfold that many players would take an entire season to develop, if ever. Barbara’s death changed that suddenly and brutally, much like the crime that took her life. The carachter as conceived for Colby (who was playing a good five years older than she actually was) was impossible for her replacement, who was several years younger. Liz Torres’ role as Julie Erskine was written as a completely different type of person, and many of the comic possibilties that were so ripe for Barbara’s Julie, could not be played by someone of Liz’s age. In any case, character development on PHYLLIS was virtually nill for any of the supporting cast, one of the good reasons Richard Schaal decided to leave at the end of the 75-76 season. The ratings had begun to slip towards the end of the first season, and it was decided to revamp the workplace set-up. The photography studio Phyllis worked at was written out, and she was suddenly imersed in the world of San Francisco politics as an Administrative Assistant to City Supervisor Dan Valenti (Carmine Carridi). This didn’t help matters, and despite several excellent episodes, the quality of the show delined.

    I would like to point out a couple of errors:

    1) Barbara Colby completed three episodes, all easilly among the best the series had to offer, and two that I consider to be true gems in the MTM Productions cannon: BESS, IS YOU A WOMAN NOW? and UP FOR GRABS.

    2) Judith Lowry’s unfortgettable Sally “Mother” Dexter chachter was hugely popular with fans. Judith died in late 1976, but thanks to episodes already in the can, Mother Dexter was seen into 1977.

    3) Burt Mustin died in early 1977, but by then, his Arthur Lawson had married Sally Dexter.

    4) Although the timeslot was indeed an enviable one, it should not be forgotten that PHYLLIS was a HUGE hit in it’s first year. Finishing as the # 6 show of the 1975-76 season, PHYLLIS trounced both RHODA and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW in ratings! So popular was the show, that it was name dropped in the hit film NETWORK as being one of the three programs to top it’s “THE HOWARD BEALE SHOW” (the other two being The SiX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and ALL IN THE FAMILY!).

    Both RHODA and PHYLLIS’ ratings suffered against LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE in the 76-77 season. RHODA missed being cancelled by a hair. The show was saved by the soft spot fans had for the carachter of RHODA, and the promise of a new timeslot. It survived another one and a half seasons.

    Cloris tried to save PHYLLIS, which limped to # 40 for the 1976-77 season. The deaths of Lowry and Mustin were a blow, but further Jane Rose was not at all well. Lisa Gerritsen would only appear sporadically, and the addition of Craig Wasson as her musician husband was too little, too late.

    I believe that the softening of Phyllis Lindstrom was a huge mistake. Certainly she would evolve, and her tremendous insecurity would be more obvious behind her protective wall of arrogance. But to slowly change her in to what the Network considered to be a more “likeable” carachter was remarkabley ill conceived. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Archie and Maude could be acerbic and gratting as hell, and people ate it up with a spoon. Phyllis Lindstrom was a complex study, and the writers dumbed her down for Season Two. Valerie Harper went through this on RHODA, as well.

    In TMTMS finale THE LAST SHOW, Phyllis and Rhoda turn up one last time. They are written in full-blooded carachter (despite the conceit that Rhoda did not know that Lars had passed) and POW!!! Priceless comedy magic.

    All in all, PHYLLIS is underrated, criminally unavailable on dvd, and never-the-less a text book example of what NOT to do with a hit show!

    Best regards, Chris Olson

    • Thanks, Chris, your Phyllis knowledge is obviously much deeper than mine! I think my brain is too full of MTMS minutiae right now, but I love all of this and I, too, wish Phyllis had had a shot. I’m so happy the world is still enjoying everything Cloris has to offer.

    • I appreciate what you have to say but don’t degrade the Rhoda show. It is the best show of all time and most of the changes that took place were perfect and at the right time. And, the show was anchored by the Rhoda/Brenda sister act.

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