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TV had never seen anything like Bea Arthur’s character, an outspoken, politically active middle-aged woman. But even after four top 10 seasons, it was a tough sell until its “No. 1 fan” stepped in, as Norman Lear recalls in his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience:
Most of what our salesman heard regarding Maude was some version of this: “I don’t want that ballbuster on my station.” Among Maude‘s hard-core supporters, however, was first lady Betty Ford, who would write to me whenever she missed an episode — long before the DVD and DVR — and ask me to send her a VHS copy, for which she never failed to send a note of thanks. All her letters were signed “Maude‘s Number One Fan.”
When we reached a stalemate, I phoned Maude‘s Number One Fan, just out of the White House and living near Palm Springs, where our ex-president was playing golf every day and she was developing the now famous Betty Ford Clinic. I told her that the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) was having its convention soon in L.A. and that we needed help calling attention to and selling Maude.
“Give me three dates that work for you that week and I’ll pick one,” she replied in an instant.
We decided to have a dinner party on our front lawn and the invitation that went out was from “Mrs. Betty Ford, Beatrice Arthur and Norman Lear.” Frances and my three daughters hosted along with the first lady.
Mrs. Ford was a trouper. She yakked up Maude all evening, talked to everyone about the show — at one point grabbing the mic and raving about Bea Arthur — and danced all evening with every station manager in attendance. It was about 1 a.m. and she was still going strong when I finally suggested to her Secret Service detail that it was time to take Mrs. Ford home.
When I phoned two days later to thank her and told her how well Maude was selling now, she was so pleased you would not have known who was more grateful for the evening.
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