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Remembering Bonnie Franklin, One Day at a Time‘s Single-Mom Hero

Mary Richards may have been history's female sitcom heroine of the '70s, but for Ann Romano, keeping her family together was itself a feminist act.

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Bonnie Franklin, the TV and stage actress who starred in One Day at a Time, TV’s first sitcom built around a divorced-woman protagonist, has died of pancreatic cancer at age 69 in Los Angeles.

The Norman Lear sitcom ran for nine seasons from 1975 to 1984. As a kid, I watched the first few years of the show in afternoon reruns on CBS. In retrospect, I’m going to say that the struggles of a divorced woman in Indianapolis, trying to pay the bills and raise two often-rebellious teenage daughters in the confusion of the ’70s, were probably over my head. The experience of, say, trying to talk to a high-school-aged daughter about birth control was not exactly in my grade-school wheelhouse.

Yet there was something recognizably real about the problems amid the jokes that most sitcoms shied away from: a Midwestern family trying to hold intact against economic and social centrifugal forces, the kinds of kitchen-table dramas my friends and I could hear echoing among parents, neighbors and older siblings. One Day at a Time didn’t get quite the recognition or canonical status of other Lear shows like All in the Family, Maude or Good Times. But what it was grappling with was just as real and distinctive: Ann Romano, who learned to assert and take care of herself later in life, was trying to give her daughters a stronger, more confident start than she had.

Mary Richards may have been history’s female sitcom heroine of the ’70s, but for Ann Romano, keeping her family together was itself a feminist act. And Franklin, 5′ 3″ with a cigarette-lighter flame of red hair, was the embodiment of her feisty spirit. Her Romano wasn’t an icon but an everywoman, a scrapper with the world (and sometimes with her kids), answering the bell and punching above her weight class. She could be adorable (bantering with Pat Harrington’s Schneider or one of Ann’s various love interests), hard-assed (lowering the boom, in particular, on taxing older daughter Julie), or sarcastic (pretty much on demand).

Bringing dramatic weight to a comedy role, Franklin made Ann a life force while always conveying how much work it was to be her. Her signature character was a fighter, a mom, a hero. And she made audiences understand her struggle, even those of us who were too young to really understand at all. RIP.