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Bill Persky: 'That Girl' Creator Explains Why His Life Is A Sitcom

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BILL PERSKY
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In 1966, a little show called "That Girl" starring Marlo Thomas as accident-prone Ann Marie burst onto the small screen, breaking ground as the first TV series to feature a "career woman" in the big city, seeking to make it on her own (with just a little help from boyfriend Donald Hollinger.)

That Guy behind "That Girl" is Bill Persky, a five-time Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer for such hit TV shows as "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Sid Caesar Show," "The Bill Cosby Show" and "Kate & Allie."

Persky's new book "My Life Is a Situation Comedy" is a memoir that describes how the 81-year-old legend blazed a trail in television and created some of the most engaging female characters in TV history.

The book, as the author describes it, stars a wide range of well-known figures, from Orson Welles and Cary Grant to Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers -- all players in Persky's life.

We recently spoke with Persky -- the father of three daughters -- about everything from the Golden Age of TV comedy to his fondness for Farrah Fawcett.

First, I know you are 81 but that you absolutely hate to be called elderly. Is that right?

Yes, I do. Calling me elderly puts me in a category and implies a certain type of restriction. I may be old but I'm not elderly. I'm not old in my spirit or my actions. The only reason they came up with the term "senior citizen" was to put a name on the retirement age. I have always resented it.

So how do you stay so fit and active at age 81?

I still have my Gentleman Jack Bourbon at night and I still drink coffee. But I go to the gym religiously every day. But I think the most important thing is to have a lot of young friends. I have a lot of friends in their 40s. My daughter's friends, friends like Andy Cohen and Kelly Ripa, have become my friends.

You've had an amazing career. Who were some of your favorite comedians growing up?

Danny Thomas of course. Martin and Lewis. Alan King, Abbott and Costello. I had a lot of favorites.

What was your first sale to TV?

My partner Don Rosenblit and I were working together in New York City. We invented a character that actually wound up on Howdy Doody as a regular character. It was for a bit about Howdy going to the North Pole and we created an animal that was called the Pigloo, which was a combination of a pig and an igloo. That was one of our first sales or maybe the actual first sale.

So many people loved "That Girl" and remember it fondly to this day. What was it like helping Marlo Thomas create that show?

That show was originally supposed to be called "Miss Independence" after the name that Danny Thomas called Marlo. But calling the show that was like waving a flag. "That Girl" is how may parents always referred to my sister. She was always doing amazing things and they'd say "do you know what that girl did today?" and things like that. So we called it "That Girl." Without that program, there would never have been a "Mary Tyler Moore" show. It was groundbreaking at the time. No one wanted to do a show about a single career woman. But Marlo -- I call her the velvet steamroller -- is such a passionate person. She absolutely wanted to play a woman with aspirations living on her own. No one else could have played that role or gotten that show on the air. I see girls on sitcoms today and they have no aspirations and no self-esteem. I think it's really sad.

I read that the network wanted the very last episode to feature Ann Marie getting married to her boyfriend Don but that you all fought against this.

That's right. Marlo thought that the whole series would have been a lie if they'd gotten married at the end ... that it would have sent out a message that all girls want is to be married. She absolutely wouldn't have it. We fought for that not to happen and it didn't.

Tell me about "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Is it true that most of the episodes were based on things that happened to you?

Absolutely true. You had to start with the truth with Carl Reiner, who's my absolute favorite person in the world. I still talk to him at least once every week. And so every episode was based on something that happened to those of us working on the show. One time my wife and I bought pillows and they smelled like ducks. I thought they smelled like ducks and my wife thought they smelled liked ducks. I told the salesman we didn't want them because they smelled like ducks. He said they didn't. Some people had just moved in next door to us and so I took the pillows over and knocked on the door and told them to smell the pillows. Pretty soon we had about eight people standing there smelling the pillows. And, yes, they smelled like ducks to everyone but the salesman. Anyway, it turned into a "Dick Van Dyke" episode.

What was your favorite "Dick Van Dyke" show episode?

The one in which Dick [who played Rob Petrie] becomes convinced that his baby son Richie had been switched at birth with a baby belonging to a couple called Mr. and Mrs. Peters. Dick invites the couple over and it turns out that the couple is African-American. This got one of the biggest laughs in TV history but the network didn't want to do it. They said "you can't do this ... you are making fun of black people." And we said, "no, the black people are making fun of the white people." And the network said "well, then you really can't do this." But Carl kept pushing and we got it on the air and it was a huge hit. But it really did feel like we were throwing a hand grenade into the audience.

You also worked on "Kate and Allie," another fan favorite. What made that show so special?

Well, Jane [Curtain] and Susan [Saint James] were just the perfect combination. It was like Martin and Lewis. Susan never thought of herself as a comedian and yet she was hilarious even though she set up Jane a lot. Jane is one of the fastest comedic minds I've ever encountered. At first this show was called "Two Mommies" but I didn't really like that. We wanted a show that was all about relationships ... different kinds of relationships. All relationships must be based on mutual trust, mutual need and mutual respect. And this show demonstrated that. I had dinner with Jane on Monday night. I like all the people I worked with.

What's your favorite sitcom today?

I love "30 Rock." I think Tina Fey is the last of the really elegant women. I like "Parks and Recreation." I love everybody on "Modern Family" because they are a throwback to the time when characters had more regard for each other and themselves. There used to be a time when a star was something you looked up to. Now you look down on stars. Snooki ... I grew up on the Jersey Shore. Snooki used to be something that would have washed up in a storm and been thrown back. Now little girls in affluent parts of New York City are dressing like her ... like a tramp. People look down on the Kardashains. I hate that these people are called stars. When did this happen? Is this what society has become?

I know you were good friends with Farrah Fawcett. What do you remember about her?

She was a gentle, gentle person. Even if I hadn't seen her in five years, she'd come and give me a hug. She was very fond of my girls. She once came to our home in Malibu for lunch and went for a swim wearing the red bathing suit, which actually looked better in person.

How do you remember all the stories you tell in your book? Did you keep journals over the years?

I really don't know. It all just sort of started coming back to me. In fact, the only thing I regret is that I was never a saver. As a child, we moved so many times. During the Depression, you always left before the rent was due. There was no sense of holding on to things. I don't have a lot of memorabilia. I don't even know where my five Emmys are. Actually I guess I know where a few of them are. But my daughters gave one to the pool boy when they were young as a thank you for teaching them how to kiss.

Wow. You must have been angry.

No, not at all. My girls can get away with anything.

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