TV Legends: Sitcom Queens

58 FEA Shirley Jones, Barbara Eden, Cloris Leachman, Doris Roberts, Marion Ross
Joe Pugliese

Shirley Jones, Barbara Eden, Cloris Leachman, Doris Roberts and Marion Ross | Photographed by Joe Pugliese on Dec. 9 on the SLS Hotel roof in Beverly Hills

You have to be willing to do anything for comedy,” says Cloris Leachman, 84, star of Fox’s Raising Hope, who cut her sitcom teeth as landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on CBS’ Mary Tyler Moore (1970-77). “For example, yesterday I was in a deli meat case, and my head was on a plate of sandwiches.” Being an iconic lady of TV has never been easy. Just ask Barbara Eden, whose breakout midriff-bearing role on NBC’s Jeannie (1965-70) could have been just another exercise in dumb-blonde subjugation. “But I never considered myself beautiful, so I actually played her like a tomboy,” Eden says. “When you think about it, she was always in charge.” And there’s Marion Ross, 82, whose sweet-but-flighty 1950s matriarch on ABC’s Happy Days (1974-84) offered Americans the nostalgic comfort they craved. “And they still do,” Ross says. “No matter where I go, people say: ‘Mrs. C! I love you!’ Henry Winkler taught me to not be afraid of them, though. All they really want is a hug.”

The 1970s also gave us Shirley Partridge, the unmarried working mom whose musical brood on ABC’s Partridge (1970-74) defied the concept of the family comedy. “I loved the fact that we weren’t a traditional sitcom,” says star Shirley Jones, 76. “I was one of TV’s first working mothers. We had a rock band. We were pretty far out.” More recently, Doris Roberts, 80, reinvented another archetype — the overbearing mother — on CBS’ Raymond (1996-2005), a show now seen in more than 140 countries. “Two episodes aired in Iraq before they pulled it because my character was ‘too strong,’ ” Roberts says. “That’s a country I probably won’t be visiting anytime soon.”