In 'Kate & Allie,' TV mimics life; at Olympics, it copied itself
New York — When two divorced, single parents and their offspring share one household, they become a real family - a 1980s ''nuclear extended'' family, according to Susan Saint James.
''After all, family is family,'' says Miss Saint James, who most TV viewers remember as the wife part of ''McMillan and Wife.'' (In real life, she is Mrs. Dick Ebersol, the wife of the executive producer of NBC's ''Saturday Night Live.'')
She is now playing the role of Kate to Jane Curtin's Allie in one of the major surprise hits of last season, ''Kate & Allie'' (CBS, Mondays, 9-9:30 p.m.) , which last week began to repeat the six successful shows that had a limited run last season. ''Kate & Allie'' has won the same spot on the regular CBS schedule next season.
''If I were a man, the conversations between Jane and me would seem very typical of any healthy family,'' continues Saint James. Kate and Allie are two divorced women who share an apartment in New York City. Kate goes to work as a travel agent; Allie stays home to care for their three children, although in the coming season she decides to return to school.
We are chatting during lunch break in Saint James's dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City, where the series is being taped. Both stars live in nearby Connecticut and have insisted that the show be shot in New York, where they can live normal lives with their families rather than commute to the West Coast.
Writer/director/producer Bill Persky - who along with both stars has been nominated for an Emmy - describes Kate as ''this girl who runs right off a cliff and it's a long time before she realizes she's over air.'' Saint James says: ''My character Kate always feels 'we can do it' and then leads the troops into a marshmallow pit.''
''I think that Jane and I are total representatives of the baby boom. When I was 21, all the good parts were for women my age - Mia Farrow, Liza Minelli, etc. Now, I'm 38 and all the bankable stars are my age and over. We're in the majority. We're the baby boom women. Now, all they have to do is find good parts for us.''
Saint James believes that as we see more of the Kate and Allie life style in life, we will see more of it on TV ''because TV is a copycat medium.'' Kate and Allie's living arrangement, says Saint James, is ''a practical life style for divorced people. The major difference between Kate and Allie and the two men in 'The Odd Couple' is that women, for the most part, in real life get the kids.''
She senses there is recognition among TV executives that our society has changed. ''Even when I played Sally McMillan, I never was supposed to know what to wear to a funeral and I always had to ask the maid to cook dinner. My biggest thing in life was to tell Mac to be careful.''
The plan for ''Kate & Allie'' is to introduce more of the real problems of mature divorcees. ''That's going to be a natural evolution. But we've got to let the public get to trust us completely first.''
What sort of response have they had from women?
''Unbelievable. All parents, single and otherwise, seem to identify. We are a very typical family.
Saint James seems to be very content with her present marriage, which is her third. Curtin has been married to the same man for 10 years. ''Divorce comes as a big blow - we all know the pain it causes our kids. But I think the human spirit finds a way to make the adjustment and find happiness. Everybody needs to bounce ideas off somebody else and being part of a couple is so reassuring.
''You can't outlaw divorce. And this business of divorced people of the same sex living together with their families is the only way some people are going to make it.''
As for her own life, Susan Saint James explains that her parents live in a refurbished carriage house that is part of the estate on which she lives with Mr. Ebersol and their three children (two by one of her former marriages). Ebersol's parents are a few houses down the road. ''So, I finally have the total nuclear extended family with both sets of grandparents right here. My kids are really rooted here in a strong way.
''You know baby sitters and day-care centers all became necessary since so many of us put our aging parents into nursing homes. I think one of the best things that can happen to you in life is to see your parents grow old. The roles start shifting.''
Does Saint James consider herself a happy woman? She laughs and the slight hoarseness in her normal speech turns into a kind of purr:
''It's all top of the line. I have a full-time job that's really a part-time job. I have a fine husband who works. I'm home in Connnecticut every weekend surrounded by family. In addition, I'm the answer to three Trivial Pursuit questions and my name was in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle recently. What more can I ask for? I've got it made.'' A modest proposal
Now that all the summer spectacles are behind us - the Democratic and Republican conventions as well as the Olympics - it is time to appraise television coverage of these affairs. TV is, after all, the form of communication most Americans utilized to participate in the ongoing events.
Both the conventions and the Olympics were plagued by one major problem - too much talk. There was too much background, too much explanation, too much color, and not enough focus on the events themselves. In the case of the Olympics, too often there were commercial interruptions at crucial moments in the competitions. How many times did viewers - as I did - find themselves wanting to shout at the screen: ''Stop all this palaver and let us see and hear what's happening!'' After all, that is the main reason viewers tuned in.
Aside from the actual Olympic competitions, which were real rather than prearranged as at the conventions, it was in the prepared entertainments that the Olympics took most of the honors. Producer David Wolper managed to bring to TV audiences at the beginning and end of the Olympics a combination of events that smacked of Cecil B. De Mille, P. T. Barnum, and Busbey Berkley all rolled into one. They were gaudy, corny, outrageously ostentatious, unforgettably marvelous spectacles that were one step beyond camp, two steps beyond tastelessness, and three steps beyond belief.
I missed that at the conventions.
Now I have a modest proposal to overcome such a shortcoming in the future: Turn the conventions as well as the Olympics over to the networks.
Invite the three commercial networks to bid for exclusive rights and then allow the winning network to stage the events in order to get huge audiences.
Perhaps David Wolper ought to be hired to create an opening and closing ceremony for the conventions as well as the Olympics, complete with breakdancers , marching chorus line bands, extraterrestrial visitors, quintessential fireworks. After all, a couple of hundred chintzy, free-falling balloons at a convention hardly compares to such a spectacle.
Then, perhaps, the participants ought to be dressed for the occasion. The most imaginative costume I noticed at the Republican National Convention was a woman wearing a blue elephant trunk at the end of her nose. Not very dignified. So, Olympics participants and convention delegates ought to be dressed by wardrobe and coiffed by makeup to ensure professional appearance.
Since so much of both the Olympics and the conventions is boring, total network control would assure viewers of the constant on-screen presence of blow-dried commentators making charmingly inane but diverting remarks instead of forcing us to see and hear the dull nitty-gritty of politics and athletics. Only main events would be aired - and then only the exciting portions.
Applications for positions as competitors and candidates would be screened by network personnel departments that would naturally utilize the services of media advisers. This could, of course, have some unexpected results:
We might end up with Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw competing as athletes and candidates as well as anchormen. It would certainly save the networks a lot of money on additional star salaries.
It's a modest proposal, not, of course, to be taken seriously. But it is not totally beyond the realm of possibility in certain respects.
The departed Marshall McCluhan proclaimed that in the television age the medium would become the message. And so it has.
Now, let us hope that the day will soon come when once again the message will become the message, the medium the medium, and television will learn not to interfere with the message any more than does the telephone. (Please see article on education TV special in today's Ideas section.)