Franklin portrayed mom in ‘One Day at a Time’

Douglas Martin / New York Times News Service /

Bonnie Franklin, whose portrayal of a pert but determined Ann Romano on the television show “One Day at a Time” in the 1970s and ’80s spun laughter out of the tribulations of a divorced woman juggling parenting, career, love life and feminist convictions, died Friday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 69.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, family members said. They had announced the diagnosis in September. Franklin also acted on the stage and in movies and for years sang and danced in a nightclub act. But she was most widely known in the role of Ann Romano, one of the first independent women to be portrayed on TV wrestling with issues like sexual harassment, rape and menopause. Franklin — green-eyed, red-haired, button-nosed and 5-foot-3 — brought a buoyant comic touch to the part.

Some saw the show as helping feminism enter the mainstream.

“I know it’s just a television show, and I don’t think that I am changing the way the world is structured,” Franklin told The Washington Post in 1980, but she allowed that “sometimes we strike chords that do make people think a bit.”

“One Day at a Time” ran from December 1975 to May 1984, and its ratings ranked in the top 20 in eight of those seasons and in the top 10 in four. Franklin was nominated for an Emmy Award and twice for a Golden Globe.

The show’s topicality fell squarely in the tradition of its developer, Norman Lear, who had gained renown for introducing political and social commentary to situation comedy with “All in the Family” and other shows. Its co-creator was Whitney Blake, a former sitcom star who, as a single mother, had reared the future actress Meredith Baxter.

Like Archie and Edith Bunker in “All in the Family,” Ann and her daughters, Julie and Barbara Cooper (Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli), used comedy in the service of grappling with serious, and thorny, real-world matters.

As a divorced mother who had reverted to her maiden name and relocated to Indianapolis, Ann fought her deadbeat ex-husband for child support, for example. Or she dealt with a daughter deciding whether to remain a virgin.

Some story lines continued for up to four weeks, as when Julie, to Ann’s consternation, dated a man more than twice her age. In one plot twist, Ann’s fiance is killed by a drunken driver. Later she marries her son-in-law’s divorced father.

Comic relief came from the frequent visits of the building superintendent, Dwayne Schneider (Pat Harrington). But Franklin was said to have pushed the producers toward greater realism, urging them to take on issues like teen pregnancy and avoid letting the show lapse into comic shtick.

In her 2009 memoir, “High on Arrival,” Phillips, who had come to the show after gaining notice in the 1973 George Lucas film “American Graffiti,” said Franklin did not want “One Day at a Time” to be “sitcom fluff.”

“She wanted it to deal honestly with the struggles and truths of raising two teenagers as a single mother,” Phillips wrote.

By the time the show ended in 1984, Ann’s daughters had grown and married and Ann herself had remarried and become a grandmother.

In interviews, Franklin said she had refused to do anything that might diminish her character’s integrity. In particular, she said, it was important for Ann not to rely on a man to make decisions. But each year she found herself fighting the same fights.

“And I’m not working with insensitive men,” she told The Boston Globe in 1981. “But the men who produce and write the show still don’t believe me when I present them with the women’s point of view.

“After seven years,” she continued, “I just want to say, ‘C’mon guys, I’m an intelligent person, why don’t you just trust me?’ I’m so tired of fighting. But you can’t give up.”

Bonnie Gail Franklin was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 6, 1944, one of five children. Her father was an investment banker while her mother pushed her children toward the performing arts. The family later moved to Beverly Hills, where Franklin graduated from Beverly Hills High School.

An excellent tap dancer by 9, she danced on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in 1953. The next year, she played Susan Cratchit on “A Christmas Carol” on the CBS variety show “Shower of Stars.” In 1956 she had uncredited roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” and the comedy “The Kettles in the Ozarks.” She turned down an offer to be a Mouseketeer on Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” television show.

After attending Smith College in Massachusetts, Franklin transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she graduated with a major in English in 1966. Her marriage to Ronald Sossi, a playwright, ended in divorce in 1970.

She had her breakthrough as a performer the same year, when she was nominated for a Tony for her 10-minute song-and-dance performance on Broadway as a chorus gypsy in “Applause,” which starred Lauren Bacall.

Franklin also acted in episodes of other television shows as well as in regional theater and movies, mainly ones made for television, notably playing Margaret Sanger, the women’s rights and birth-control advocate, in “Portrait of a Rebel: The Remarkable Mrs. Sanger,” a movie on CBS. On the Sanger set, she met the movie’s producer, Marvin Minoff. They were married for 29 years before his death in 2009. The couple had no children.

She went on to speak to hundreds of thousands of women at an abortion rights march in Washington in 2004.