Marvels Mary Hartman creator Norman Lear: "If Mary Kay told me she could build the Brooklyn Bridge in Palm Springs, I'd believe her—there's nothing she can't do." To be sure, just eight years ago she was one of Lear's production secretaries. Now, at 29, she is an established writer (her first M*A*S*H script was an Emmy nominee) as well as a rising singer-actress playing opposite Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli in the upcoming New York, New York. "She's done it all," says Lear, "in probably a record amount of time."
He's not the only person in town who takes Place seriously. Back-up voices on her first album include virtuoso volunteers Dolly Parton, Anne Murray and Emmylou Harris, no less. And the musicians? "Just fellas," kids Mary Kay. Actually, they're Emmylou's rightly named Hot Band, some of whom also tour with Elvis Presley. In explaining her seemingly too-much, too-soon career rise, Mary Kay cracks, "I have a very limited attention span."
She's an Okie but not one to get stuck in Muskogee. Mary Kay spent her first 21 years in Tulsa among folks from whom she borrowed many of Loretta Haggers' mannerisms. Her dad, currently head of the University of Tulsa's art department, contributed the country patois. He's a CB freak whose handle is "Big Nasty." Mom (who says, "I'm proud of what Mary Kay's doin' but it's no more important than what anyone else is doin' ") is an elementary school teacher who waggles her forefinger in conversation—a Loretta mannerism. A cousin from Abilene, where Mary Kay used to summer, was the origin of her TV expression, "Well now, sugar, I'll tell you something..." Place was not a totally detached observer of her youth. She was a cheerleader for the Nathan Hale High School Rangers. Then, after majoring in drama at the U of Tulsa (where she learned to soften her twang), Mary Kay set off for Hollywood, "never doubting I would somehow be involved in this business." She was first cast as Fleegle the Dog on a local TV kiddie show, but had no stomach for "running around town with a grocery bag of 8x10 glossies like some starlet" and getting into "a lot of casting couch hassles." So she wound up a secretary on the Maude set, and after reading and typing "a million scripts and finding a lot of them not that funny, I figured out how to do it myself."
By then, she says, "It was feasible for women to write," and, with collaborator Linda Bloodworth, she scored on the prestigious Lear and MTM series as well as on a Lily Tomlin special. Mary Kay first got onto the other side of the camera co-composing a song with which she serenaded Archie Bunker. The title: If Communism Comes A-Knocking at Your Door, Don't Answer. "I think I went into acting," she cracks, "because writing is the hardest thing in the world." Right now, though, she's working on her first solo script. "It's about a woman growing up in the area I did," she says. "The women's coming-of-age stories I know about all have the girl in prep school somewhere, and I don't even know anybody who went to prep school."
"The busier I get," declares Mary Kay, "the more homebody I get." Which means that these days she yearns for some time with her pooch, Wanda Nell, in their modest rented house in West Hollywood. She's been looking to buy, Place notes, except that in L.A. "you can't get a matchbox for under $5 million." Her man for the last six months, so far not live-in, is writer-director Bill Norton. "He's helped me preserve my sanity since the summer, when everything started to happen at once," says Mary Kay. "Marriage is an institution I support and children are something that interest me, but I would like things to slow down a bit before I get into any of that. I have fanatical ideas about child raising and discipline, and I want to be sure I'm going to be able to be around enough to carry them out."
There's another substitute source of comfort right now—her circle of professional friends, whom Place describes as "the up-and-coming producers and writers mainly, not the little Hollywood starlets. We've all been together since we were secretaries and mail boys, and now we all seem to be on the verge of making it." Then, with a finality that should chill the old order, Renaissance lady Place concludes, with a sweet smile and a soft twang: "We've been driven and inspired by our friends in the business, but we're also stimulated by negative example. When you see the people who have the real power in this town, then you realize there's no limit to what you can do."
When ballplayers sniff stardom, they declare themselves free agents. When TV performers make it, they cut an LP. Telly Savalas perpetrated Who Loves Ya Baby, soap queen Mary Stuart did Don't Look Back, and now comes the album Tonite! At the Capri Lounge: Loretta Haggers, by Mary Kay Place, who plays that Job-like foil to the heroine in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. This time, though, the result is not the usual self-indulgent waxy buildup in the record racks. Mary Kay is a natural-born Jill of all trades, and both the LP and its big single, Baby Boy, are irresistible instant hits on the country charts.