Home Entertainment The Only Major Actors Still Alive From ’70s Sitcom Rhoda

The Only Major Actors Still Alive From ’70s Sitcom Rhoda

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If the 1950s and ’60s were the golden age of the television sitcom (i.e. the era during which the form was established and honed with beat-by-beat precision by shows like “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), the 1970s were its in-the-pocket prime. And when risk-averse TV execs saw the astronomical ratings of hit sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M*A*S*H,” they exploited this ratings-rich phenomenon by diving into the same-but-different world of spinoffs.

Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” was the ’70s spinoff king with seven total offshoots, but James L. Brooks and Allan Burns’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” proved plenty durable by spawning “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” and “Lou Grant.” Of these, “Rhoda” was by far the biggest hit. Valerie Harper’s four seasons as Mary Richards’ lovably vivacious neighbor more than confirmed she could carry a series of her own. So, Brooks and Allan sent Rhoda back to her hometown of New York City, where she immediately found love (her first-season wedding was the highest rated episode of TV in the 1970s until “Roots” aired in 1977), tsuris (via her oft overwhelming mother brought to formidable life by the great Nancy Walker), and familial bonding (thanks to her unlucky-in-love sister Brenda played by Julie Kavner).

“Rhoda” was a ratings juggernaut over its first two seasons, but faltered as the writers (perhaps wrongheadedly) thought the character worked better as a single woman. They also struggled to expand the main cast. By its fifth season, Rhoda was striking the same notes with stuck-in-a-rut characters, which led to its cancellation.

This was unfortunate because we loved Harper, Walker, Kavner and the great actors who passed through the principal ensemble. Sadly, most of these performers (Harper, Walker, David Groh, Ron Silver, Harold Gould, and Ron Silver) have left us. But two key members of the cast are still with us. One you might not know so well, while the other is pop culture royalty.

Ray Butkenica

Ray Butkenica’s bespectacled Benny Goodwin wasn’t the most impressive of men. He manned a toll-both during the day and roller skated on his down time. But he was a kind soul who, upon being introduced in the show’s third season, served as a fun romantic partner for the previously lovelorn Brenda. Benny had competition for Brenda’s affections in Ron Silver’s Gary Levy, but when the creative team wrote Gary out of the series ahead of the fifth and final season, the door was open for Benny and Brenda to finally get engaged.

After the cancellation of “Rhoda,” Butkenica landed a series regular role as “M*A*S*H” veteran Wayne Rogers’ best buddy on CBS’ briefly successful sitcom adaptation of the hit film “House Calls,” and was a enjoyably obnoxious foil for Patti LuPone’s headstrong mother on the ABC drama “Life Goes On.” While Butkenica worked steadily throughout the ’80s and into the 2000s, he was mostly cast as a featured player on individual episodes of hit shows like “Matlock,” “L.A. Law,” and “JAG.” He hasn’t logged an acting credit since providing voices for “The Sopranos: Road to Respect” video game in 2006. Whatever Mr. Butkenica is up to, we hope he’s feeling personally and creatively fulfilled!

Julie Kavner

Julie Kavner was a star from the moment we heard her. Sure, the 24-year-old newcomer looked the part of a downhearted single gal looking for love in New York City, but once she spoke she had an entire nation of television viewers’ attention and their hearts.

Brenda Morgenstern was clearly a breakout role for Kavner, one that earned her a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, but work proved hard to come by in the years following the series’ cancellation in 1978. Fortunately, after a few TV guest appearances and a couple of go-nowhere movie roles, Kavner landed a small-but-memorable part in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and reminded Hollywood how special she could be.

The Kavner-ssaince began in 1987 when she joined the sketch-comedy ensemble of “The Tracy Ullman Show,” but it was that gravelly voice that brought her lasting glory. Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons” was initially envisioned as little more than animated breaks interspersed throughout Ullman’s show, but Fox executives unexpectedly discovered a ratings goldmine when it tried the cartoon out as a mid-season replacement over the 1989-1990 TV season. 35 years later, “The Simpsons” are still holding it down at 742 Evergreen Terrace, and it’s impossible to imagine the show surviving even one-half season without Kavner’s put-upon-yet-indefatigable matriarch Marge. While Yeardley Smith’s Lisa is typically the conscience of the show, Marge is reliably its heart.

And yet, if we can register one minor kvetch: Kavner’s long-term voice-acting success is remarkable, but it’s come at the expense of her onscreen acting career. She hasn’t appeared in a live-action anything since playing Adam Sandler’s mother in 2006’s “Click.” To say we miss seeing her is an understatement.



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