Bonnie Franklin found fame amidst a shift in American culture with her leading role on the popular sitcom "One Day at a Time" (CBS, 1975-1984), where she portrayed one of the first single mothers in primetime - certainly one of the first to anchor a television show. A child star in her days growing up in Southern California, she went on to win a flurry teen roles in 1960s television before finding more secure footing in the theater, notably via a two-year, award-winning run in the Broadway musical "Applause" in the early 1970s. In 1975, she took the role of single mother Ann Romano, who must raise two teenage daughters on "One Day at a Time," one of producer Norman Lear's library of shows seeking to morph the long-squeaky clean sitcom format to a more real-world feel. The show's long run drew enough limelight to win her a variety of made-for-TV movie projects, but would ultimately leave her typecast as "sitcom mom" and make further screen work hard to come by. Franklin returned to television for the infrequent guest appearance, ramped up her stage work in the late 1990s and, in the early 2000s, founded an organization that marshaled well-known actors to participate in a live theater program for L.A.-area students. Still, for many American television viewers, Franklin would always be the brassy, indefatigable mom able to face down the pitfalls of American family life all on her own.
She was born Bonnie Gail Franklin on Jan. 6, 1944, in Santa Monica, CA, the fourth of five children of Claire and Samuel Franklin, both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. A precocious child, she took to show business early, earning an on-air spot dancing with song-and-dance great Donald O'Connor on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (NBC, 1950-55) at age nine. She won bit child parts on both TV programs and in films such as Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man" (19565) and "The Kettles in the Ozarks" (1956). The family prospered on her father's work as an investment banker, and they moved to Beverly Hills when Bonnie was 13. She graduated Beverly Hills High School in 1961, after which she matriculated at Smith College. Acceding to her mother's worries that she might resettle on the East Coast, she transferred to UCLA her junior year. Franklin landed a role in a college production of "Carousel," which toured Asia courtesy of the USO. She began a relationship with one of her co-stars in the play, Ron Sossi. Out of college she won periodic teenybopper roles on some network TV shows, such as "Mr. Novak" (NBC, 1963-65), "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" (NBC, 1964-68), "Gidget" (ABC, 1965-66), "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (NBC, 1965-67) and "The Munsters" (CBS, 1964-66).
Franklin and Sossi wed in 1967 but it soured quickly, ending in divorce in 1970. She landed a San Francisco production of "Your Own Thing," which led to a move to New York. She immediately distinguished herself in the musical "Applause," a musical adaptation of the film classic "All About Eve" (1950). Her performance won her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress and she did a two-year-stint with the show. She drew renewed interest from Hollywood, including producer Norman Lear, creator of CBS' No. 1 hit "All in the Family" (1971-1979). Lear and producers Whitney Blake and Allan Manings tabbed Franklin for the lead role in a sitcom about a divorced mother relocating to Indianapolis to raise two teenage daughters (MacKenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli) and rediscover herself on her own terms. "One Day at a Time" premiered in late 1975 as a mid-season replacement show on CBS and, as with other Lear productions, found a groove on the strength of its melding wise-cracking comedy with real-world social issues, particularly those facing women. The show finished in Nielsen's Top 20 in its first season, going on to do so for eight seasons. Though Phillips would draw tabloid attention for her ongoing battle with cocaine abuse, eventually prompting her to be fired twice - the second time after an on-set collapse - Franklin supplemented her schedule with annual and semi-annual one-off projects through the late 1970s and early 1980s. She did her requisite TV-star turn on ABC's comedic anthology show "The Love Boat" (1977-1986) and became a hot property for variety specials such as "All-Star Comedy Ice Revue" (CBS, 1978) and "Musical Comedy Tonight II" (PBS, 1981). She also did a series of light romantic TV movies, supporting a young Cybill Shepherd in "A Guide for the Married Woman" (ABC, 1979); starring opposite Billy Crystal in "Breaking Up is Hard to Do (ABC, 1979); and taking one of the leads in the "Your Place...or Mine" (CBS, 1983).
CBS also gave her the chance to show off her dramatic chops in a biopic about crusading women's health advocate Margaret Sanger, "Portrait of a Rebel: The Remarkable Mrs. Sanger" (1980). Franklin began a relationship with the movie's producer, Marvin Minoff, who had worked on the famed Frost/Nixon interview, and the two married in 1980. By 1984, "One Day" had fallen out of Nielsen's Top 20 and, with Franklin ready to bolt the show, CBS cancelled it. Having directed a couple of episodes during its run, she picked up more directing work in ensuing years, including a regular gig helming episodes of "The Munsters Today" (1988-1991), a syndicated reboot of the classic sitcom. She returned to CBS for another telefilm, playing a nun helping to resocialize troubled urban women in "Sister Margaret and the Saturday Night Ladies (1987), but found screen work otherwise tough to come by. In 1988, Franklin returned to the stage, doing an off-Broadway stint in the Terrance McNally play "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" and taking the title role in "Annie Get Your Gun" in runs at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA, and at the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, PA.
She would not grace the airwaves again until taking featured guest role in a two-part arc of the short-lived Nancy Travis sitcom "Almost Perfect" (CBS, 1995-96). In the late 1990s, Franklin did a flurry of regional theater in the Northeast, starring in string of plays at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, in Ogunquit, ME, Cape Cod, MA, Nyack, NY, Milford, CT, Pittsburgh, PA and Milburn, NJ. In the early 2000s, she issued a series of tap-dance how-to DVDs. Franklin also began working behind-the-scenes to promote theater education, marshaling an impressive roster of her fellow thespians to assist her in an organization she founded, Classic and Contemporary American Plays. The Tarzana, CA-based educational outreach organization coordinated with English teachers in L.A.-area high schools, set curricula of plays to be studied by their students, then capped each study period with a staged reading performance for the kids by a cast of professional actors and a discussion of the work afterwards. Franklin performed in a number of the stage readings. In 2011, she made an appearance on the TV Land original show "Hot in Cleveland" (2011- ), a retro-themed sitcom starring her "One Day" daughter Bertinelli. In late 2012, she announced she was suffering from pancreatic cancer. On March 1, 2013, she passed away from the disease at age 69.
By Matthew Grimm