When “Maude’s Reunion” aired on February 21, 1977, none of us who worked on the show knew it would set off a domino effect that would change our industry’s perception of people with disabilities. And I, working as a first assistant to the executive producer, Rod Parker, certainly didn’t know it would launch a career I didn’t know I was looking for.
The episode was a great one with stellar performances by Bea Arthur and Nanette Fabray. In it, Maude attends her 30th college reunion and is shocked to find that one of her closest school friends has suffered a debilitating stroke. The program builds to a crescendo when her friend Nanette confronts and challenges Maude to face her feelings: “I scare the hell out of you!” she tells Maude.
The impact of this episode on our studio audience, the subsequent viewers, the critics, the network, and Norman Lear was palpable. So much so that a couple of weeks after the show aired, Norman dropped in to see Rod. After their meeting, Rod called me in and said “I want you to do some research for me. Find me an assembly line with “handicapped” (remember this was 1977) workers. But don’t say whom you’re doing it for because we don’t want to get people’s hopes up. We’re going to develop a sitcom with handicapped people.” Which I thought was the worst idea I had heard since I went to work for the company!
But research I did! We were going to be on hiatus so I had plenty of time, and eventually a phone call to the Governor’s Committee for Employment of the Handicapped steered me to a committee in the South Bay area. I was told they were looking for a tape project to use as a conversation-breaker when they called on employers to encourage them to hire people with disabilities.
I attended one of their monthly meetings, listened to what they had to say, and promised to come back the following month with some suggestions.
Back then, I was new to TV and knew nothing about “tape” production. Everything that went on in the booth every week at our tapings was still very much a mystery. However, my ex-husband was a documentary and industrial film producer/director, and I had helped out with the company when we were together. So I knew and was comfortable sitting in a darkened screening room, looking for negative scratches and other imperfections in our productions. All much more civil than the chaos that prevailed (in my opinion) during a taping in the booth at Metromedia where Norman would be giving notes to his assistant, the director was giving notes to the script supervisor, the tech director was talking to the four camera people on the set as well as the engineers in their control room. All while one person on the sidelines had a silent version of a ball game on the screen while my boss would turn to me every now and then and mumble some note of which I had no idea what he said. And as I was trying to figure it out, we’d “taped” more pages from the script! So I welcomed the idea of a “hiatus” once I learned exactly what that word meant. Vacation!
At the next meeting of the South Bay Mayor’s Committee for Employment of the Handicapped, I submitted my proposal. “You don’t need a tape project,” I told them. “You need 16 mm film; we’ll get a friend of mine who only has one leg to play tennis with Norman Lear; we’ll get John Denver to do the music; and we’ll go for an Academy Award,” said I, was confident this group would never get it together to finance a project. After all, it was a completely volunteer organization, and they probably had a dollar-and-a-quarter in the bank. I had told them the budget would be $50,000—a figure I pulled out of the air.
Well, the stars went off in their eyes. This was showbiz! They assured me they would get the funding from various sources and set off to do just that, while I went away confident I could enjoy my vacation without having to worry about this project any longer. Over the course of the summer I would get the occasional phone call: “Unfortunately so-and-so doesn’t fund film projects.” I understand, said I, thanks for keeping me posted. Or, “We just missed their budget deadline so can’t reapply until next year!” And so it went until the summer was winding down, and I would soon be back at work setting up our offices for the fall/winter season of Maude.
As I rearranged the office furniture, the phone rang and it was the committee chair. They had found a government office—The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW)—that had a grant program they could apply for to help fund the film, but the deadline was the following wee
k! They had hired a grant writer, and all they needed from me was a budget; could I get them one right away? “Sure,” I said weakly. “Let me get back to you.” I hung up the phone and almost fainted. A budget? I had never done a budget for a film. I wasn’t sure I would even know where to begin. I got up, started pacing and tried to figure out whom I could ask. There was my ex-husband, I supposed. But I really didn’t want to do that. Finally, I realized the husband of one of the young assistants I had hired for one of Rod’s shows (he was now supervising three shows) was a comedy writer who had also done some industrials when they were living in Detroit. Well, I figured, if he worked for General Motors, maybe he would know how to do a budget. So I called Jim Belcher, brought him up to date and asked if he wanted to be my partner on this project. He said “yes,” so I told him he better come right over because we had to do a budget and get it to the committee by tomorrow. I was going back into productions with three shows. He was freelance, so I figured at least he would have some time to devote to this endeavor.
A short time later, Jim showed up, and as he stood in the doorway said, “A funny thing happened as I was leaving the house.” “Really?” I asked. “What?”
“I got a call to be a staff writer on Lila Garrett’s show Baby, I’m Back. “Oh shoot,” I said (actually I’d used a stronger expletive). “Why?” he asked, perplexed. “Well, you know what this means, don’t you?” No, what?” he said, still puzzled. “It means they’re going to get the money and now neither one of us has the time to do the project.”
Well, to make a long story short, they won the grant. The government, however, reduced the money allotted to $40,000, and that’s when luck kicked in. The government never advances money. They will reimburse expenses, except the committee had no money. So, their volunteer treasurer, Jack Kramer, who had a day job at Mattel, badgered, cajoled, and God knows what else, but finally succeeded and got the money in advance.
By that time, Jim and I had done some research, watched other films on the subject, and came to the conclusion that what we wanted to do was showcase our talents, include celebrities, and basically take a different approach to the subject.
And then the fact that I was working for Norman Lear’s company came into play. He was the first “celebrity” we asked to be in it—and, of course, he said yes. After that, to everyone else we approached, we said, “We’re making a public service film to encourage the accurate portrayal and employment of people with disabilities. Norman Lear will be in it, and we’d like to include you.” Nobody said no.
The film was nominated for an Oscar and received more than a dozen national and international awards; it enlightened us and all of our colleagues in the industry; and spawned a number of other activities as we became aware of the enormous job that needed to be done. And somehow Norman always played a part.
One day, months after the film was in circulation, I was speaking at a governor’s committee meeting about the film, and I was confronted by a very sexy guy in a wheelchair named Peter Arballo, who said, “You folks from the media are always coming to us and exploiting us (this was on the heels of The Men and Coming Home) and then you leave (a phrase I will never forget), and we disappear into the back bedrooms of America!” I was stunned. He continued, “Will you serve on a task force?” I meekly suggested he talk to me after the meeting, which he did.
And we came up with the idea of having a dinner and panel discussion with the casting folks who had booked the extras for The Men and Coming Home at the next Board of Governor’s committee meeting. So I, of course, lined up the entire cast from Maude to attend. I was on my way to Norman’s office to invite him when I ran into our publicist, Barbara Brogliatti, and told her I was going to invite Norman to this dinner. She said, “Oh, are you giving him an award?” Recovering quickly from my amazement at what she just asked, I responded, “Of course we are!” And that, my friends, is how the Media Access Awards was born.
Addendum: After that first Media Access Awards dinner at the Holiday Inn on Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood (LA), where we showed clips (seven, I think) from Norman Lear shows that had featured actors with disabilities, the second Media Access Awards was a luncheon honoring Garry Marshall and Henry Winkler. At that luncheon, we introduced Geri Jewell, who played cousin Geri on The Facts of Life—the first primetime sitcom to feature a recurring character with a disability on national television.
When it became evident that advocating for any minority was a full-time job, we established the Media Access Office. And, because we hadn’t paid anyone to be in A Different Approach, a film about hiring people with disabilities, when Disney called and wanted to distribute the film with maybe a 10 or 20 percent royalty, I declined the offer. Instead, the South Bay Mayors Committee distributed the film and made enough money to fund another award-winning short called It’s A New Day, which featured all the technology that was being introduced to level the playing field for people with disabilities, along with scholarships, wheelchair ramps, etc. I was even invited to Japan back in 2005 because they were celebrating 20 years of showing A Different Approach. All of this occurred because “Maude’s Reunion” gave Norman Lear the idea of developing a show that included people with disabilities. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fern Field Brookfield Productions
Video from ABILITY’s Thought Leaders Series