Cloris Leachman as Phyllis

Phyllis

1975 - United States

An official spin-off series from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, this half-hour comedy followed the adventures of Mary Richards arrogant, self-absorbed landlord Phyllis Lindstrom. Cloris Leachman–the actress who played Phyllis–was certainly talented; she had won two Emmys during her five seasons on MTM, along with a 1971 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in the now-classic Peter Bogdanovich film “The Last Picture Show.” Because Phyllis was such a polarizing character, the MTM producers used her sparingly–as a cook would use a pungent spice-- with positive results. However, making her the centerpiece of a weekly sitcom proved to be a mistake, and Phyllis ran for just two seasons.

When the series began its CBS run on September 11th, 1975, Phyllis–stunned by the sudden death of her wealthy but never-seen dermatologist husband Lars--moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to San Francisco, the city she and Lars once called home. With her bright and level-headed teenage daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen) in tow, the pair moved into the home of Phyllissomewhat dizzy mother-in-law Audrey Dexter (Jane Rose) and her sombre second husband, Judge Jonathan Dexter (Henry Jones). Phyllis soon after landed the position of an assistant to studio photographer Julie Erskine.

Actress Barbara Colby portrayed Erskine only in the pilot; just as production started, Colby was shot to death in a Venice, California parking lot. Liz Torres assumed the Julie Erskine character starting with the second episode.

Initially, American viewers took to Phyllis; it quickly became a top ten hit because of the characters familiarity. But as the first season went on, ratings began to fall as viewers became tired of the unlikeable lead character. For its final season, producers softened Phyllis' rough edges somewhat, ditched the photography studio and gave her a job as administrative assistant for San Francisco City Supervisor Dan Valenti (Carmine Caridi). Also added to the cast was 86-year-old actress Judith Lowry as the saucy-tongued Mother Dexter, who proved to be a formidable foe for the annoying Phyllis. (Mother Dexter was an early version of The Golden Girls Sophia Petrillo, the feisty, outspoken senior citizen played by the late Estelle Getty.) During the second season, Mother Dexter married a man around her age, Arthur Lanson (Burt Mustin). But again, tragedy struck; both Lowry and Mustin died soon after the episode was filmed. Coupled with formidable competition from NBCs family drama Little House On The Prairie, the writing was on the wall for Phyllis. CBS aired the final episode March 13th, 1977.

A highlight of the series was its opening theme song. A brassy Broadway-inspired tune composed by Dick DeBenedictis, it played over the opening credits as the character enjoyed the landmarks of beautiful San Francisco:

Who makes the fog surrounding the Golden Gate simply disappear?
Phyllis, Phyllis
Who makes the warning bells on the cable cars play "The Gangs All Here"? Phyllis, Phyllis
Who charms the crabs at Fishermans Wharf right out of their shells?
Who lights the lamps of Chinatown just by walking in view? Who?
Phyllis! Phyllis! Phyllis!
It sure isnt you!

Published on January 18th, 2019. Written by Mike Spadoni (2010) for Television Heaven.

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