Jenna McMahon, a three-time Emmy Award winner and the co-creator of the long-running comedies The Facts of Life and Mama’s Family, has died. She was 89.
McMahon, whose real name was Mary Virginia Skinner, died on March 2 of heart failure at a hospital in Monterey, Calif., her daughter, Kerry Holden-Dixon, told The Hollywood Reporter.
McMahon partnered with the late Dick Clair to form one of the top comedy writing teams of the 1970s and ’80s.
Newly arrived from New York, McMahon (her mother’s maiden name) had opened a playhouse in West Hollywood and was teaching acting when she met Clair in 1961. They came up with a comedy act along the lines of the one done by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, her daughter said.
Clair & McMahon played nightclubs, graduated to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show, and were regulars on the short-lived comedy variety shows What’s It All About, World? and The Funny Side.
McMahon and Clair wrote episodes of The Bob Newhart Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show before Carol Burnett, who admired their act, added them to the staff of her famed CBS variety show.
They worked there for six seasons (1973-78) and notably created the character of Eunice, the browbeating, ranting daughter of Mama (Vicki Lawrence) and wife of Ed (Harvey Korman) for the show’s recurring comedy sketch “The Family.” That would lead to Mama’s Family, which starred Lawrence and aired from 1983-90 on NBC and in first-run syndication.
McMahon and Clair contributed the story for the final first-season episode of NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes, which served as the springboard for The Facts of Life. That series, which revolved around the fictional Eastland girls boarding school, ran from 1979-88 and starred Charlotte Rae, Kim Fields and Mindy Cohn.
The pair (with Stu Silver) later created the sitcom It’s a Living, which centered on the waitresses and maitre d’ (Marian Mercer) working at a restaurant at the top of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. It ran for two seasons on ABC, then another four in first-run syndication.
McMahon and Clair also penned episodes of the comedies Maude, Soap and Flo, and they did a highly regarded 1987 ABC variety special titled Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin (that’s Burnett, Reiner, Goldberg and Williams, who won an Emmy for his performance.)
McMahon and Clair combined for all seven of their Emmy nominations, and their three wins came for their writing on the Burnett Show.
Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., McMahon moved to New York and studied under legendary acting coach Stella Adler. Her credits as an actress included Dennis the Menace, The Twilight Zone, Love, American Style, The Bob Newhart Show and Welcome Back, Kotter.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include McMahon’s brother Bill and sister-in-law Doris. A memorial service will be held in California.
Clair died in December 1988 at age 57 of AIDS-related illnesses and had his body frozen with the hope of being revived someday.