Lasser as Mary Hartman in 1976
Louise Marie Lasser
April 11, 1939
New York City, U.S.
|Alma mater||Brandeis University|
|Occupation||Actress, television writer, teacher, director|
(m. 1966; div. 1970)
Louise Marie Lasser (born April 11, 1939) is an American actress, television writer and performing arts teacher and director. She is known for her portrayal of the title character on the soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She was married to Woody Allen and appeared in several of his early films. She is also a life member of The Actors Studio and studied with both Sanford Meisner and Robert X. Modica.
Born in New York City, Lasser is the daughter of tax expert S. Jay Lasser, author of the successful Everyone's Income Tax Guide series in the '70s and '80s. Louise Lasser's family was Jewish and Lasser was an only child. For three years, she studied political science at Brandeis University. In 1964, Lasser's mother Paula committed suicide following the breakup of her marriage to S. Jay, who eventually also took his own life.
She appeared in the Woody Allen films Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), as well as being one of the voices for his earlier spoof dubbing of a Japanese spy movie, What's Up Tiger Lily? (1966).
Lasser was also featured in comedies such as Such Good Friends (1971) and Slither (1973). She appeared in episodes of Love, American Style in 1971, The Bob Newhart Show in 1972 and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. In 1973, she also appeared in the TV-movie version of Ingmar Bergman's The Lie and as Elaine in "The Roller Coaster Stops Here" episode of the NBC romantic anthology series Love Story.
Lasser became a household name for starring as the neurotic, unhappy housewife Mary Hartman in the serialized satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and during the show's run appeared on the covers of Newsweek, People, and Rolling Stone. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman aired five nights a week for two seasons from 1976 to 1977. In his autobiography, producer Norman Lear says that the casting of Lasser took less than a minute after Charles H. Joffe told him there was only one actress to play the part of Mary Hartman, and Lear met the former Mrs. Woody Allen. Lasser initially refused the role. Of the casting process, Lear said "when she read a bit of the script for me, I all but cried for joy ... Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset."
Exhausted from the grueling schedule, Lasser left the series after two seasons (325 episodes), and the serial was re-branded Forever Fernwood, which continued for 26 weeks focusing on the trials and tribulations of the other Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman characters.
In 2000, Lasser appeared on a panel with her former cast members at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills (taped for the museum archives). Lasser was interviewed about the series in the bonus features of the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman Complete Series DVD box-set from Shout Factory, released in December 2013. In it, she reveals that the idea for Mary Hartman's nervous breakdown at the end of the first season came after she wrote a 12-page letter suggesting the idea to Norman Lear.
In the spring of 1976 in Los Angeles, Lasser was arrested at a charity boutique, and police found $6 worth (or 88 milligrams) of cocaine in her purse. Authorities were called after Lasser's American Express card was denied and Lasser refused to leave without possession of a $150 dollhouse. Lasser was initially apprehended for two unpaid traffic tickets (one for jaywalking), but the officers then found the drug in her handbag. Lasser claimed the coke had been given to her several months earlier by a fan. Ultimately, Lasser was ordered to do six months in counseling, which was easily satisfied as she was already seeing an analyst. A fictionalized version of the "Dollhouse Incident" was also incorporated into Mary Hartman's first season.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman offers "Kitchen Sink Theater of the Absurd" wherein a Candide-esque TV-watching housewife believes that a consumer culture broadcasting the evils of waxy yellow buildup and virtues of frozen tacos is seeking to make her a better person. In one signature episode, Mary brings a sick neighbor a bowl of chicken soup, only to have him fall asleep and drown in it. "I have actually taken a human life with my chicken soup," Mary laments. While some called the production ahead of its time, Lasser has pointed out that it also reflects its time period perfectly: The program is perhaps an amusing-if-downbeat post-Watergate tribute in which we record and re-listen to each one of our thoughts to figure out if any of them actually makes any sense, or if they all should be redacted. During her appearance on The David Susskind Show, Mary memorably mutters, "Erase, erase."
As author Claire Barliant writes: "For some, the 1970s...was a descent into chaos, a dissolution of self, but also a kind of awakening....The Seventies' nervous breakdown coincides with women's lib and a strengthening gay rights movement....MH2 is relevant today because it entertains but still shocks, because the social commentary and satire and bravery of the show are as fresh as ever." Moreover, Lasser as the series' figurehead aptly embodies both the insanity and enlightenment of the epoch.
On July 24, 1976, Lasser hosted the penultimate episode of Saturday Night Lives first season. Her performance is best known for her opening monologue in which she re-creates a Mary Hartman-esque nervous breakdown and locks herself in her dressing room. She is then coaxed out by Chevy Chase/Land Shark and the promise of appearing on the cover of Time.
Some reports claim that Lasser's erratic behavior on the show led to her being the first person banned from SNL. Chase accused her of "solipsism," and SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue called her "clinically berserk" and allegedly walked off that week's installment in disgust. O'Donoghue claimed: "She was a nice woman going through a few problems, but I wanted to force her to eat her goddamn pigtails at gunpoint."
However, Lasser denies that she was ever forbidden from coming back. By Lasser's account, she was initially told she would be able to write her own material but that term was later reneged on and she also refused to do sketches she deemed "salacious": one in particular featured Lasser and Gilda Radner as teenagers talking about male genitalia. Lasser attests: "At the last minute my manager said they're not going to cut it. So I said then I'm going to go. And he said are you serious, you're going to make an ultimatum out of this? And I said, I think so."Jane Curtin appeared in the skit with Radner instead.
Lasser also asserts that her SNL antics--which include stream-of-consciousness rambling (already typical of her Mary Hartman character) -- were "on purpose" and that Lorne Michaels pulled repeats of the broadcast only at her manager's request because her manager was not fond of the whole affair, including the final segment in which the actress sat onstage to discuss her rise to fame and the dollhouse incident. Lasser mostly performs by herself on the program but also appears in a vignette with a dog at a table.
In terms of her interaction with the SNL cast members, Lasser called Chase "like-a-bully mean" but Radner "a doll." Aside from the intro segment in which Radner and Dan Aykroyd knock on her changing room door, Chase was the only regular player with whom Lasser had any scenes. Lasser and Chase appear as lovers in an Ingmar Bergman parody; plus, the pair filmed a sequence at the Madison Square Garden DNC (although the footage was never aired). Instead, there is a video short in a diner in which she and her partner, played by Alan Zweibel, try to break up but forget their lines; in the end, Lasser moves to the bar to meet her potential new love interest, Michael Sarrazin. Lorne Michaels also briefly shows up in the clip, which ends with "a film by Louise Lasser" credit.
According to Lasser, "He [Lorne Michaels] had invited me to come back; he said come back in two weeks and do another show....It was sad because I believed in people and if they said they were going to do something...for me to threaten to walk off the show, I would never do that for spite. Banned--that's a horrible thing to have said."
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman producer Norman Lear and co-star Mary Kay Place also hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) during the run of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Her post-MH2 stage credits include Marie and Bruce (1980) and A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking.
Lasser had a recurring role on St. Elsewhere in the mid-1980s as Victor Ehrlich's Aunt Charise, a neurotic comic character. Her 1980s film appearances included Stardust Memories (1980), In God We Tru$t (1980), Crimewave (1985), Blood Rage (1987), Surrender (1987), Rude Awakening (1989), and as the mother of the main character in Sing (1989).
Her 1990s films included Frankenhooker (1990), The Night We Never Met (1993), Sudden Manhattan (1996), Layin' Low (1996), and as the mother of the three main female characters in Todd Solondz's film Happiness. She appeared in Mystery Men (1999) as the mother of Hank Azaria's character. She also had roles in Darren Aronofsky's film Requiem for a Dream (2000), the romantic comedy Fast Food Fast Women (2000) and co-starred with Renée Taylor in National Lampoon's Gold Diggers (2003). Lasser acted in two episodes of HBO's Girls as a Manhattan artist for the series' third season (2014).
Lasser was the first woman to win a Clio Award, Best Actress in a Commercial (1967), and was also nominated for an Emmy for her performance in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She won the National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by an Ensemble for her participation in the film Happiness.
Lasser was married to Woody Allen from 1966 to 1970.