Linda Lavin IS “Alice”

Linda Lavin (whose birthday is today) was a Broadway star both before and after her famous sitcom Alice (1976-1985)…AND Ellen Burstyn also played the main character…so our title is a bit of a misnomer. But it’ll do in a pinch!

The show was based on the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore starring Burstyn and directed by Martin Scorsese. It was written by Robert Getchell, who later penned Bound for Glory (1976), Mommie Dearest (1981), Stella (1990), The Client (1994) and other films, as well as the TV version of Alice. The film was Scorsese’s first major studio film and an unusual one for him, more about personal relationships than visual style, although there are glimmers of his trademark violence, in the form of boyfriend Kris Kristofferson, who takes the strap to Alice’s smart-mouthed, spoiled son (Alfred Lutter) and is violent with her as well. And Harvey Keitel plays an even more brutal boyfriend.

The plot concerns a widowed woman who is travelling cross-country with her young son to California, where she hopes to realize the dream of her youth, which is to become a singer. Her car breaks down in Arizona, forcing her to stay put and work as a waitress in a diner. It’s a movie of small events looming large. I’ve seen it about three times and it’s grown on me each time.

Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time (1975-1984) had proven that a sitcom about single motherhood could be successful. Alice had a similar premise. Things changed for the TV version, of course. The copious swearing that characterized the film was completely excised, removing much of the character of the boy Tommy. I remember next to nothing about the kid who played this part on TV Philip McKeon, whereas Alfred Lutter, who played him in the movie really stands out. (He was also in The Bad News Bears and Woody Allen’s Love and Death. He was one of my favorite child actors at the time. Smart mouthed kids were very big in the ’70s).

As Alice, Linda Lavin vs. Ellen Burstyn is a draw. The latter was more realistic of course, but it was a different kind of telling a completely different medium. In the TV version, Alice is coming all the way from New Jersey, so the character is altered to be more of a sassy Northeastern type who doesn’t take any crap. Oddly, given her skill set, the show didn’t give her opportunities to sing, as the film did for Burstyn.

Polly Holliday was the show’s breakout star as Flo, the even sassier Southern waitress, whose popular catchphrase was “Kiss my grits!” She left the show for her own spinoff series in 1980; it didn’t last long. The part had originally been played by Diane Ladd in the movie, equally memorably, one of her greatest film roles. She joined then joined the TV cast when Holliday left, ironically playing a character that was essentially her movie version of Flo.  Beth Howland played the scatterbrained, clumsy third waitress Vera. The three contrasting characters made for a good comic formula.

Vic Tayback was the sole holdover from the film, playing the gruff jerky short order cook Mel, who owned the diner. One wonders if James L. Brooks was a fan of this show. He seemed to borrow this element, an asshole boss, creating labor vs. management tension, for Taxi (1978-1983). And one also wonders if Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows were fans, as they seemed to borrow the idea of “regulars” for Cheers (1982-1993)! Alice had Dave Madden from The Partridge Family and Marvin Kaplan. Cheers had Cliff and Norm of course. Which all goes to say that Alice exerted a certain influence. And when it was all over, what did Linda Lavin do? Just like Alice hoped to do, returned to her first love, singing for live audiences.