The Story of Carly Mills

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CARLY MILLS. Pilot (Comedy), 30 min., Unaired, Produced for ABC for the 1986-87 season. Production Company: MTM Enterprises. Director: Rod Daniel. Executive Producer: John Steven Owen. Producer: Rod Daniel. Writer: John Steven Owen. Kate Mulgrew is a traditional, old-fashioned mother, married to an overworked college professor (Jack Bannon), who has chosen to be a housewife and raise their four children because she wants to.
Cast: Kate Mulgrew (as Carly Mills), Jack Bannon (Evan Mills), Matt Adler (Pete Mills), Amanda Peterson (Trisha Mills), Hannah Cutrona (Brigid Mills), R. J. William (Jeffy Mills), Betsy Randall (Maggie Wallace), Rebecca Rush (Cynthia James).

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CARLY MILLS
By John Steven Owen
Executive producer and writer of the pilot CARLY MILLS in 1986

CARLY MILLS was basically the story of a wife and mother of four trying to keep her family together in a culture that was seeing more and more families splintering and losing sight of old-fashioned values. A lot of women with children in the 1980s were housewives but they weren’t really represented on TV at that time; on TV they were divorced, widowed, lawyers, cops, anything but stay-at-home moms… like mine, a mother of six. Each episode would be “a life in the day” of Carly and her family, beginning and ending in a 24-hour period.

I was in my fifth year at MTM as a writer-producer when ABC bought my pilot script and, with casting director Eugene Blyth, we began seeing actresses on a daily basis– Teri Garr, Paula Prentiss, Shelley Fabares, Jean Smart, Dixie Carter– all of them wonderful, none of them right. Then Gene brought Kate in. She nailed the audition and you believed she could have taken on any number of professions but chose to be a housewife and mother. I was happy, MTM was happy, and ABC, for a time, was happy…

Jan. 29: Kate agrees to play “Carly” and I start outlining a season’s worth of episodes with her voice clearly in my head.

Feb. 6: Kate’s deal is finalized; it’s official now.

Feb. 14: Kate reads a scene with Jack Bannon (“Evan”) for the first time and everyone agrees they have a strong chemistry.

Mar. 12: Rehearsals start and continue through the week. One day director Rod Daniel takes me aside and says the final scene looks good on the page but not on the stage: “It just isn’t working, no matter what we do. You want us to keep trying?” I say no, I’ll re-write it, so Rod sends everybody home and I re-write it that afternoon. The next day, the cast sits around a table, reads it aloud, and Kate says, “It’s a hundred times better, not that the other ending wasn’t good, it was, everyone loved it, we did, honestly, we just couldn’t do it right, that’s all, and this one, well, I know we can do this one right, and now I think I’ll shut up,” and she kisses me on the cheek.

Mar. 19, 20, 21: Filming. On the last day of the shoot, one of my brothers drives my mom up from San Diego to spend the day on the set. The cast and crew know the character of Carly is based on her and they treat her like royalty at first, then when they get to know how warm and down-to-earth she is, they relax. She and Kate hit it off immediately, as I knew they would.

In the new final scene, Carly is in bed, awakened by sounds coming from the kitchen, She gets up to reveal she’s wearing an ankle-length nightgown, pulls on a robe, then goes out to see what’s going on. Kate comes over to me and asks if she has to wear the long nightgown, can’t she instead wear a shortie nightgown as she sometimes does at home. (I have a suspicion that either Leah or Pat in the Costume Department had said she has great legs, why not show them off. And it’s true, she does have great legs, but our focus has to be on her becoming aware of the sounds in the kitchen, not on her legs). So I say that the point of the pilot, of the series, is Carly’s attempt to get her family back to some of the old-fashioned virtues and, in that vein, a shortie nightgown might seem inappropriate. Kate thinks it over, nods, and walks away. Then she walks back. “What kind of nightgown does your mother wear,” she asks me, “just out of curiosity?” A full-length nightgown, I reply. Kate nods, walks away. I quickly call Mom over: “I need you to be prepared in case Kate takes you aside and asks you what kind of nightgown you wear. I need you to say you wear a full-length one, okay?” Mom says okay then adds, “But I sometimes wear a shortie nightgown.” “You can’t tell her that!” I say with some insistence. “I need her to wear a full-length gown so we don’t see her legs.” “But she has great legs,” says Mom. When she sees the steam coming out of my ears, she assures me she’ll deliver the message. Not ten minutes later, Kate is taking Mom aside and asking her something. Mom indicates a nightgown down to her ankles. Kate smiles, thanks her, walks off. Mom gives me a thumbs-up, we shoot the scene, and when Kate sees it in dailies later– and I swear this is true– she says to me, “Your mother was right. The long nightgown works much better.” I say nothing, which is rare for me.

ABC sees a rough cut of the pilot and decide the opening kitchen scene, in which each member of the Mills family is introduced, moves too fast; they want us to re-shoot it and slow it down and they’ll split the additional $250,000 with MTM, raising the total cost of the pilot to a cool million bucks. Pretty expensive for 1986. So we do what’s been asked of us, then we have a screening for the cast and crew and any employee at MTM who wants to see it– and a lot do, the theater is packed. When it’s over, the applause is long and sincere and Kate hugs me and I have visions of a five-year run, at the very least…

Well, you never get the full story of why a pilot isn’t picked up for series. Ask a dozen people at ABC why they eventually passed on it and you’ll get twelve different reasons: the test audience scores weren’t high enough, or there wasn’t an available time-slot or a compatible show to pair us up with, or an executive who had championed the show was no longer with the network, or or or…

Kate was performing two plays in repertory at the Doolittle and I went to see HEDDA GABLER first and we had drinks after. I knew that she had been advised back in January not to leave the stage for a sit-com, that she would come to regret it, and I asked her if that were true, if she did regret it. She gave me that great smile of hers and said, “Not a single moment of it,” and we spent the rest of the evening re-living the highs and lows of what we’d just been through. The next week I saw her in THE REAL THING and we met afterwards and managed to talk about things other than CARLY. Except once. As I was leaving, Kate said, “Give my love to your mother, would you?”

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Published in: on October 8, 2013 at 10:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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