On a soggy gray November afternoon just before Thanksgiving I sat in Louise Lasser’s modest one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, interviewing her. The occasion was the release of the complete box set of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a short-lived seventies TV show produced by Norman Lear that was supremely weird and meta and critical of American consumer culture in a way that still is shocking.
It was set in a small town in Ohio, and Lasser played the titular protagonist who flounders around this bizarro Norman Rockwell world with a bewildered “how did I get here” air that will be familiar (and thus slightly reassuring) to anyone who has ever experienced even the slightest existential drift or wondered why suddenly everyone around you seems to look and dress exactly alike and why all the stores carry the same products and why any sign of difference or texture is being slowly sanded down into an enduring, relentless marmoreal sameness…but I digress, sort of. Because the brilliance of Mary Hartman was in many ways its scathing critique of the way TV sneakily delivered capitalistic messages straight into our unsuspecting minds via commercials, convincing all of us that everything would turn out alright if we just buy the right kind of floor wax.
The season climaxed with Mary suffering a nervous breakdown as she is about to be launched on national television as “America’s Number One Consumer Housewife.” Lasser was perfectly cast in the role, with her New York accent and slightly stunned air, not to mention the doll-like dress in which she was incongruously attired.
Today Lasser is still a babe, with wispy blonde bangs that keep falling into her blue eyes. She still has the same husky voice and daffy vulnerability that brought the character of Mary to life. During our chat Lasser openly discussed her relationship with Woody, what it was like working with Lena, and why the world never got to see the genius pairing of her and Gilda Radner in an SNL skit.
The conversation was so wide-ranging that we decided to divide it into sections for readability. —Ed.
LL: I spent three years in college. Then I got pretty depressed. These things were flirting with me all of my growing up.
CB: Did acting help with depression? Did it give you an outlet for those emotions?
LL: When you’re depressed you’re not thinking this will help me…it’s so part of the fabric of everything. I remember sometimes with Mary Hartman . . . I was gradually morphing into her. There was no her without me. I don’t think acting helped me deal with it. It helped me in that I felt free and comfortable to express my worst needs and thoughts. Thoughts that, I would think, in life I might get rejected for having. Pretty fast it came to me that she [Mary] was a bipolar character, that she swung around, and I was aware that came from me, that I knew how to do that. They’d write a script and I would add riffs to it. In the original scripts, there were a lot of changing keys without modulating.
CB: Have you ever played a character before or since that you had that kind of relationship to, where it was an extension of yourself?
LL: I think there’s a need in every character I’ve ever played, without having thought about it, that’s completely that—that’s all my weak, not-being-able-to-get-on-top-of-it thing. In other words, in this, they give her such an unusual situation that a girl like her, a church-going little Mary, only would try her best to do everything, and be kind to people, and to be good. And yet, Tom, that I’m so attracted to, Tom, he’s the husband, and he’s so mean to me, he’s alcoholic, and I think he’s the best thing. I think he’s the best person that ever lived and no person could be better to me. And I have a daughter who simply hates me.
CB: That character is so loveable and she’s trying so hard.
LL: She’s trying so hard. And she can’t admit that it’s not working, so she eventually, the two collide and she falls apart. [When Norman Lear approached me about the role] I would say, I just can’t do it, I don’t know who she is. I would explain to him, I had five meetings with him [before taking the role.] There’s these characters, and then where Mary is just is this big hole of blankness. Now I realize I didn’t get who she was because I was in there and I couldn’t see myself in there. If you stand out here you can see what fills it in. It’s disturbing, that project.
On Woody Allen
CB: You were married to Woody Allen. Can you talk about that?
LL: Yeah, but ask me questions. Because it’s so much, you know.
CB: Well, what happened, how did he romance you? How old were you?
LL: I was twenty-one. I’d just taken my leave of absence from school. In those last few years of college I’d started to fill up with the dark side. I’d wake up in the morning and I didn’t know what was wrong, I didn’t know what the word depression was, I knew the word depression, and I knew I could say that my mother was really depressed, but I didn’t know that’s what I was feeling. I didn’t make that connection. Now that I think about it, I think Mary . . . she couldn’t identify what it was, it was just happening to her, on her, that she was a victim. But I don’t think I knew that first. The revelations there came from within the story, doing the story. The nervous breakdown was pretty well thought out, in that, when it came, it came.
So about Woody. When we met, I was seeing a friend of his. It was one of those things, well if you think you’re complicated, you should meet so-and-so. And it was Woody.
We immediately, immediately, just were meant to be in the same playpen. Immediately we just connected. He was with somebody . . . oh, he was married, that’s right. And I was with his friend. And we went out like once or twice. And I don’t know who I am or where I am, I don’t know. So, I met him, and it was so clear the whole night the four of us were there, and neither of us are talking to anyone else, do you know what I mean? We know what’s going on and it’s like you feel nervous about it because it’s like you can get into trouble for this. It’s not the right thing to do. I’m twenty-one years old, or twenty, I’d just started therapy, and I don’t know who I am or what’s important, but I do know what makes me laugh. And I do know that I can be really funny, but I don’t associate that with doing comedy or anything. We used to joke. I never wanted to do comedy, I was just a young actress, living with my parents, just started therapy. And was probably pretty depressed in my life by then. So he would call me and he would say do you want to buy some music, I think there were records at the time, and we would go in his car and we just got along really great.
We really understood what the other was saying. Like I’d barely heard the word “existentialism,” but when he and I talked it was like I already knew about it. Do you know what I’m saying? We’d go downtown, and we’d go jumping over benches, what people do, you just do it because you seem so free. This was the time when it was very fashionable to be Zelda Fitzgerald and Scott Fitzgerald. You’re familiar with them?
These were our references in some strange way. Then it just developed, and then he got divorced. In a very short period of time, this happened. We got married five or six years later. For me he was . . . it’s interesting because for me he was safety and the opposite. I’d never met anyone in show business. And he was writing jokes; he’d just done the Sid Caesar show. But I had no interest.
He would show me everything he knew. We’d go to the theater, these little out-of-the-way joints, and we’d have a drink, and by the second drink I was drunk, but he was that way too. He was a really bad drinker. It was as if we just got drunk much too fast, it’s not worth the price. I can remember this—he was the only person who had ever entered my life that I knew something got in there [Lasser taps her forehead] and was moving things around and I didn’t want to go as fast as he did. He was sure from the beginning and I was afraid I’d feel closed in…what turned out to be my usual things for men. He was always really nice. He had more information than I did in a way?
CB: How much older was he?
LL: Three years older. So I was 21, he was 24.
CB: He hadn’t started directing yet, but it still seems he would have introduced you to this whole world of show business…
LL: But he did, he did. I wasn’t so comfortable with it; do you know what I mean? When it came to acting, I always thought well that’s the thing I’m going to do, and I don’t know that he loved that idea.
LL: Well he was very possessive, and he . . . it’s all some mish-mosh, because you’re at those ages that you don’t know what’s going on anyway. You don’t string it together yet. We’d break up. We lived right around the corner from each other. I think I would break up, and then within a very short period of time we’d bump into each other on the street, and I’d start to cry, like why did we do that, break up. We were very inextricably tied at that time. It was adolescent, things seem so exciting and great and then at the same time you don’t know what’s going on.
CB: It sounds very passionate and romantic.
LL: It was very passionate, and it was very romantic, and yet, I could say, “I don’t know,” do you know what I mean? What’s wrong, I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s just like the breakup scene in Bananas. It’s sort of like that, even though that’s scaled over the top.
CB: Was that modeled on one of your own . . . ?
LL: I don’t know, it could have been, I don’t know. We finally ended up improvising it, but it could have been that I was the girl then that things were based on.
CB: So how long were you together?
LL: Before we got married we lived together for periods of time, and then I didn’t know if I wanted to get married, and he ended up giving me his apartment, and he took another one.
CB: So you got married and he moved out?
LL: No. We didn’t get married until I was twenty-six. And during that time my parents broke up. A lot happened. And my mother committed suicide.
CB: I’m so sorry.
LL: It was a very strange time, and you’re always amazed by how much you skip over.
CB: That must have been incredibly traumatic.
LL: I guess so but it’s more traumatic now then it was then. I guess you’re not thinking then, do you know what I mean?
CB: So you’d been picking up on some kind of depression.
LL: For all my life, but I just had no idea. I was brought up by a woman who was incredibly interesting and had very profound depression. It was kind of what I knew. I didn’t know other people’s parents. When I’d get to see them, I thought, they’re so different. But I didn’t want those. I actually liked mine. I thought mine were more interesting.
CB: So you and Woody Allen finally got married, and moved in together?
LL: We always did both [houses.] We had the house we lived in when we were married but we also lived in it before we got married. I don’t know how it didn’t work out or did, but I know that when we separated, and we’d somehow end up in the same place, we’d always end up huddled up in the corner. We were so established then. That girl that he portrays, many of his characters, it was not like that, we just were that. I think that was the original, the source for the others. And then his career started to take off, after we got divorced, but they were so close these moments. They were so close. The relationship didn’t fully dissipate until a couple of years after we got divorced.
CB: Are you still in touch?
LL: We speak not that often, but he usually invites me to come at Thanksgiving. They live a block away. And I’ve gone a few times. But it’s all different. And your life goes different ways. It was such a strong part of my life, so public, in a sense, that you don’t just put it away, like, “oh, when I went out with so-and-so.” I think he talks about this relationship as the crazy relationship too.
CB: Crazy isn’t the word I would use.
LL: He would think I would do things that just totally came out of nowhere. Well, now I’m not quite that way, I was that way more then. It’s very strange when you’re that close to someone and then you’re not. But you speak, but you don’t know which part of you is having that conversation. And yet you do have an affection for that person.