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What It Was Like to Be the First Woman Running a Network TV Show

Back when Hollywood’s glass ceiling was nearly shatterproof, Charlotte Brown cracked it with 'Rhoda': "Producers started dipping their toes into the water and saying, 'Maybe I should get me one of those women writers and try it.'"

Charlotte Brown’s career as an entertainment industry groundbreaker began — as Hollywood connections sometimes do — at the dentist. In the late 1960s, Brown, who would go on to become TV’s first female showrunner when she took over as the executive producer of Rhoda in 1976, was a junior copywriter at an ad agency, on the rise thanks to a particularly clever campaign she created for Bubble Up soda spoofing Laugh-In. The feminist movement was burgeoning, and Brown, then in her mid-20s, had bolder ambitions — she wanted to write for television. At the time, Brown shared a dentist with TV writer James L. Brooks, who had just created the series Room 222 with his writing partner, Allan Burns, and was at work on a new pilot, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for producer Grant Tinker. Brown had gotten her hands on the script, which was funny, smart and — miraculously to a young woman who had grown up watching 1950s shows like Father Knows Best and Donna Reed — centered on a career woman. After Brown slipped a portfolio of her advertising work to Brooks via their dentist, he invited her to come and watch run-throughs of the show, then shooting on a stage in Hollywood.

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Brown began devising a series of fake doctors’ appointments in order to leave the ad agency early on Fridays, so she could sit in the bleachers and watch the soon-to-be-historic episodes being made; eventually, she wrote a spec script over the course of a weekend. “[Brooks] called me and he said, ‘God, I just read your script,’ and he sounded so enthusiastic, I couldn’t wait for the next sentence,” says Brown, 77. “He said, ‘It’s just awful. You know nothing about plot construction, but you have a great ear for dialogue and you think funny. Those things can’t be taught.’ ”

Brooks didn’t make that spec, but he made Brown’s second Mary Tyler Moore script, and she began a career as a freelance TV writer working on any show that would have her, including The Bob Newhart Show, The Partridge Family and Love, American Style. Over the next 25 years, Brown’s career would be shaped by myriad cultural forces, from the second-wave feminism that helped launch her in her 20s to the ageism that stifled her in her 40s and 50s, a period when her agent cautioned her not to volunteer the information that she had worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — widely considered one of the greatest TV comedies of all time — because it dated her. “[After Brooks and Burns,] every producer that hired me, I was the first woman,” Brown says. “They were, quote unquote, taking a chance on me. I felt that responsibility.”

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The cast, producers and writing staff of Rhoda, including James L. Brooks (front row, second from left) and Allan Burns (back row, far right), whom Brown calls “two highly evolved men.” Courtesy of Subject

Though Brown was too green to know it at the time, Brooks and Burns’ writers rooms were relative oases of equity in a wildly sexist industry, and the duo were unique in hiring several other female writers, including Gail Parent, Treva Silverman, Susan Silver and Pat Nardo, who started as their secretary. “They were just two highly evolved men,” Brown says. “Because of that, a lot of women got their start.” Brooks and Burns also were smart enough to know what they didn’t know. “They hired women for their voices,” says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the books Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and When Women Invented Television. “They wanted the women to tell their stories of how they fought with their mother or their best friend or a terrible date they went on.”

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, eventually, Rhoda, Brown drew from her own experiences as a single working woman to help shape Mary and her best friend, played by Valerie Harper, who became an audience favorite and earned a spinoff. “She was one of the very best early writers for Rhoda Morgenstern, a character on a constant emotional roller coaster,” Brooks says. Female viewers desperate to see themselves took particular comfort in Rhoda, who had a rounder (albeit still slim) figure than Mary and a self-deprecating wit about her unsatisfying love life. At one point, a group of young women who worked in the White House under Gerald Ford wrote a fan letter to the Rhoda writers that said something akin to, “We watch Mary and see the woman we could be, but we watch Rhoda and see the woman we are.”

Brown also found creative inspiration in her parents, a Jewish couple who had emigrated from Europe as children in the early 20th century and raised her in a duplex in L.A.’s Fairfax and Pico-Robertson neighborhoods. Her father was a musician who eventually reconditioned barrels to pay the bills; her mother worked an office job at the May Company before becoming a housewife. Sometimes Brown took lines for Rhoda’s loving but meddlesome mother, Ida, who was played by Nancy Walker, directly from her own mother, and the plastic-covered furniture in Rhoda’s parents’ home was inspired by the decor in Brown’s parents’ living room. “Once early on, in a TV Guide interview, I referred to my mother as the archetype for Ida,” Brown says. “I remember my mother calling. She said, ‘What does archetype mean?’ I said, ‘That’s a good thing.’ “

When Brown was 7, her family got their first TV, a 10-inch Packard Bell, and soon she was losing herself in I Love Lucy — one of the few shows at the time that had a female writer, Madelyn Pugh. She devoured movie magazines, spent all day Saturday at the theater with her brother and in junior high told a teacher she wanted to work in show business. “I was shocked when I discovered that not everyone wanted to be famous when they grew up,” she says. Her first exposure to anyone actually in the industry was as an undergraduate at UCLA, where a sorority sister’s father wrote for Bob Hope. After college, Brown became a high school English teacher for two years, developing skills she eventually would summon as the boss at Rhoda. “I knew how to control a room,” Brown says. “If you could control teenagers, you could control your writers.”

Early on, Brown looked to one of the few female comedy writers in the business who was a household name as inspiration. “I wanted to be Elaine May, but sane,” she says. As a freelancer, she juggled odd gigs, including writing on variety specials for Mitzi Gaynor and Raquel Welch. At her first meeting with Welch, Brown was directed to her dressing room, where the actress was with her hairdresser and costumer. “I go in, and there’s a totally naked Raquel Welch. She’s carrying on a conversation with me while they’re fitting her, and I’m thinking, ‘There are millions of men who would kill for this and I’m trying not to look.’ She really wanted to be taken seriously. It was the beginning of the feminist movement.” Around this time, Brown attended a meeting of seven or eight women at the Writers Guild who were looking to form a women’s committee and got to know the few other working female TV writers, including two of her idols, Silverman and Parent.

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Women saw themselves in the character of Rhoda, and in May 1975, Brown was honored at the Ladies’ Home Journal Women of the Year Awards. From left: Diahann Carroll, Linda Bloodworth, Brown, Mary Kay Place and Treva Silverman. Courtesy of Subject

In writers rooms during the 1970s, Brown was infiltrating male spaces. “The thinking back then was, ‘God, writers rooms are pretty rough, the language. They swear and smoke cigars, and it’s no place for a woman,’ ” she says. On the MTM Enterprises shows produced by Tinker, the point of view was, “We’re all grown-ups and we can say ‘fuck’ or whatever,” Brown says. “You got paid to laugh all day and to learn from the best. I was wide-eyed.” Brooks and Burns’ success in hiring female writers on Mary Tyler Moore inspired others in the industry to open up and created new opportunities for Brown. “Suddenly, by the second year of Mary, other producers started dipping their toes into the water and saying, ‘Maybe I should get me one of those women writers and try it.’ ” Brown mostly didn’t mind the rough language in the rooms, but other things got to her. When she was working on The Bob Newhart Show, the new phenomenon Monday Night Football coincided with the busiest and most important night of the week for a writer, rewrite night. When dinner was served at 6, Brown’s male peers, who felt no apparent urgency about getting home, insisted on watching the sports broadcast in its entirety, meaning they didn’t get to work until 9 p.m. and wrote until morning. In the beginning, Brown took the hours as a matter of course, but when she became a showrunner herself, she pushed for a different schedule. “What I learned was, you don’t have to work those hours,” Brown says. “As a showrunner, you really make that decision — how quickly everything moves in the room. Once in a while, yes, you’ve got to work late, but I tried to make my staffs as much as I could 50-50 men and women and to get home at normal hours every night of the week. It could be done. If you wanted to get home, you could work faster.”

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When Brown encountered ageism later in her career, “I was stunned and hurt.” Courtesy of Subject

Brown had been happy freelancing, but Brooks and Burns asked her to come on staff when they were launching Rhoda in 1975, and she earned a WGA Award for the first episode of the series she wrote, in which Rhoda and her boyfriend meet each other’s parents. By Rhoda‘s third season, she had been named executive producer, and, Brooks says, “Charlotte was one of the most unflappable showrunners I’ve ever been around.” Despite the show’s popularity — it was a top 10 program — there were hurdles to surmount, including an ever-shifting time slot and culture-war critiques. The same year that Rhoda launched, in response to pressure from conservative groups, the FCC instituted the “family hour,” requiring family-friendly programming on the networks between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Rhoda had gotten married on the show, which aired at 8:30, and Brown’s intention was to depict a contemporary young married couple. “It wasn’t Lucy and Desi or Dick and Mary in twin beds,” Brown says. “They were in a double bed and they had adult conversations. Suddenly, we couldn’t do everything that we wanted to do because of family hour.” That limitation sparked one of the show’s more controversial plot changes, with Rhoda quickly divorcing. “We finally looked at one another and said, ‘What’s the point of having her married if she can’t be married?’ We got a lot of blowback from viewers because women were so identified with Rhoda.”

In its fifth season, after a time-slot change pitted the show opposite NBC’s new hit, CHiPS, Rhoda‘s ratings flagged and CBS canceled the program. In the next years, Brown wrote a feature that didn’t get made and directed several episodes of television, including Cagney & Lacey and Archie Bunker’s Place. When she got back to showrunning, Brown would soon find herself startled by her treatment outside the haven that had been created by Tinker, Brooks and Burns. At her first network meeting for a pilot she was executive producing and directing, Brown disagreed with an executive’s notes. “My mantra was always, When in doubt, ask yourself, ‘What would Jim and Allan do?’ Big mistake because I couldn’t do what Jim and Allan could,” she says. “They could dig their heels in and say, ‘No, that’s not the way it should be. We’re going to do it this way.’ It didn’t work for me, or for other women. We would get reputations of being tough or difficult, whereas about a guy they would say, ‘Boy, he really stands up for what he believes.’ ” At the tense network meeting, she looked to the production-company executive for support, something Tinker had always readily supplied. “He just hid behind a potted palm. The difference was night and day, the way shows were run, the way writers rooms were run, the way the actors would treat the script with no respect. It was really a reeducation.”

At 40, Brown, who had never married but didn’t want to miss out on motherhood, adopted a daughter, a highly unusual move for a single woman in the early ’80s. “It totally impacted my career,” Brown says. “I still had this very demanding career, but there were times I would be sitting in a really important meeting at Sony with the executives and I had to leave to get on the freeway to go to a parent-teacher conference.”

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Brown’s mother, who saved this and many news clippings about her daughter, was the unwitting inspiration for Nancy Walker’s loving but meddlesome mother character on Rhoda, right down to her plastic slipcovers. Courtesy of Subject

Nonetheless, she continued to work steadily, nabbing an overall deal with Norman Lear’s company, and developing a series, The Powers That Be, with Marta Kauffman and David Crane, who would go on to create Friends. But by the time Brown hit her late 40s, she was becoming aware of a new liability — her own experience. When a writer whom Brown had given his start asked her to write an episode of his new series, she had a moment of realization that her work on groundbreaking TV shows was yesterday’s news to a new generation. “It was a small staff, but they were all like 12 years old,” Brown says. “This one young woman sitting next to me on the couch introduces herself. ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘What shows have you done?’ ” Ascertaining that the young writer knew nothing about her work, she recalls, “I just looked at her and I said, ‘You go first.’ I don’t know where it came from, but I was so stunned — and hurt, to some degree.”

One way in which Brown’s career had been different from those of other successful women was that she had never had a male co-writer. “That helped those women a lot,” Brown says. “It’s like good cop, bad cop. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, ‘They were their pimp.’ Most cases, the women were really the stronger personalities in the duo. But I always wrote alone. That also made it hard.” Later she began writing with a man, John Baskin, whom she knew through Lear’s shows, but they were both in their 50s and couldn’t seem to surmount the industry’s ageism. They essentially retired from TV writing, pivoting to writing plays that ran at the Pasadena Playhouse. “It’s best to know when to leave the dance,” Brown says.

Today, Brown lives in Westwood’s Little Holmby neighborhood and writes mainly for herself, and, when it’s not a pandemic, travels. Her daughter is 36. Very little TV comedy speaks to Brown nowadays, though she did love the British series Episodes. “I write because I like to write,” Brown says. “But I’m so glad I had the career that I had when I had it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

This story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.