Read An Unproduced RHODA Script: “Your Old Friend Phyllis”

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In today’s post, I’m thrilled to present a That’s Entertainment! exclusive — an original script for an unproduced episode of Rhoda (1974-1978, CBS), which we covered here in full on Sitcom Tuesdays last year. This particular script was the second commissioned for the fourth season, dated 06/20/77, and assigned the production number of #7152. It was written by David Lloyd, the wonderful teleplaywright whose crowning achievement is perhaps The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s legendary “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” Entitled “Your Old Friend Phyllis,” the episode was to reunite Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) with her old nemesis from Moore’s series, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), whose own self-titled spin-off had been cancelled earlier that year. This would have made for the last time that these two characters appeared on screen together. The reason that the script ultimately never made it into production is unknown, but it is likely that Leachman was either unavailable or uninterested in revisiting the character, which she had been playing for two consecutive, and mostly unfruitful, years. (Phyllis has also been covered in full on Sitcom Tuesdays!)

Mary_Tyler_Moore_Valerie_Harper_Cloris_Leachman_Last_Mary_Tyler_Moore_show_1977

I believe this to be a shame, for as you’ll see below, this is a wonderfully written script that could have provided appropriate closure to these two iconic characters. Even for a first draft, Lloyd’s script is incredibly funny and his sense of the characters’ voices — including Brenda’s (Julie Kavner) and Johnny Venture’s (Michael DeLano), the only other regulars to appear, aside from Carlton, of course — is pitch perfect. The premise has Phyllis staying with Rhoda when she gets stranded in the city sans wallet, and the story culminates in a drunken truth-session between the two. This is undoubtedly the script’s most interesting scene, and should this episode have progressed any further, I’d have liked to see it fleshed out even more, perhaps occurring over the entirety of the second act. As it stands now, most of the conversation, itself about a third of the script, occurs off-screen, as the women get progressively schnockered. (Why not show us them getting this way, and make their conversation the crux of the episode, not just the climax?) Also, you’ll note that there are no references to Mary or the events of Phyllis — details that would have provided welcome continuity.

7152-0a

But Lloyd’s first draft has the right idea for these two characters and had this episode been produced, “Your Old Friend Phyllis” would have easily made my list of the year’s best, and could have very possibly been the MVE. Check it out below and let me know what you think!

7152-0b7152-0b 7152-0c 7152-1 7152-2 7152-3 7152-4 7152-5 7152-6 7152-7 7152-8 7152-9 7152-10 7152-11 7152-12 7152-13 7152-14 7152-15 7152-16 7152-17 7152-18 7152-19 7152-20 7152-21 7152-22 7152-23 7152-24 7152-25 7152-26 7152-27 7152-28 7152-29 7152-30 7152-31 7152-32 7152-33 7152-34 7152-35 7152-36 7152-37 7152-38 7152-39 7152-40 7152-41 7152-42 7152-43 7152-44 7152-45 7152-46 7152-47 7152-48 7152-49 7152-50

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “Read An Unproduced RHODA Script: “Your Old Friend Phyllis”

  1. This is amazing– I never even heard of this unproduced episode before now! I’m really looking forward to reading the script later! Even without reading it yet, just from your description, I agree that it’s a tremendous shame that it was never filmed.

    • Hi, WGaryW! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I found out about this script’s existence a few months ago and was gobsmacked to find a copy on eBay recently. It’s certainly a treat. Interestingly, this is one of four early Season Four scripts that was assigned a production number and fell out — uncommon for RHODA. (I believe only one other script given a number went unfilmed, and that was from the truncated final season, which likely would have made use of the script if a back nine, or eleven, had been ordered.) Hope you enjoy!

  2. Thanks for posting this. I could never stand Phyllis as a character, but this script made me laugh out loud several times, which is pretty good for a script to do that on its own. Mr. Lloyd certainly knew the MTM characters well. It is fun to think how “Chuckles Bites the Dust” could have been if it included Rhoda & Phyllis, who’d both left the show by then.
    Speaking of them, do you think MTM could’ve been improved over its last 2 seasons with a good neighbor for Mary at her new high rise apt? She had enough stories at the office, and her coworkers certainly visited her at home a lot, but maybe she could’ve had more reason to be there if she’d had somebody else there worth talking to.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the script! I feel similarly: several laugh-out-loud moments (and I’m a hard sell) in a first draft — quite impressive.

      As for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, no, I actually think the focus on the work environment made the show tighter and more comedically rewarding in the latter half of its run (rocky final season notwithstanding), particularly in the strong sixth season — the year of “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” I imagine a new recurring neighbor for Mary would have invited more stories, as was evidenced by Penny Marshall’s two-episode character, Paula, who was intended to be a semi-regular before the actress got LAVERNE & SHIRLEY. But in a regular capacity, I think another main player outside the office would only have disappointed in comparison to Rhoda (and Phyllis) and inevitably distracted from the ensemble players for whom we had already cultivated an emotional fondness.

  3. This script felt very much like a way to introduce Phyllis into the Rhoda series as a recurring character. I think the idea here was to not only give Rhoda a non-familial female character (close to her age) to bounce her trials and triumphs off of, like Mary had with Rhoda, but to also add a bit of rivalry to the series. The idea might have been to also strengthen the show’s ratings. However, if I had to make a guess why it was abandoned, it’s likely Chloris Leechman, because of her own cancelled series, was not up for revisiting this character and being subordinated to a bit part and continually being the butt of Rhoda’s jokes. Chloris Leechman was probably not up for playing ‘a bit part’ having just come off of being a series lead.

    While I felt this script was reasonably tight, the idea wasn’t overly original. However, I’m uncertain how they could have reintroduced Phyllis in a way that Rhoda would have accepted her as a ‘friend’ in any other way.

    Had things played out, I could have easily seen Phyllis turn into a recurring character role on Rhoda. It might have even made the cast dynamic a bit better had Phyllis moved close to Rhoda and popped in at the most inopportune times. It could have spawned some comedy gold there. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

    • Hi, commorancy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think you’re right that Leachman is likely responsible for this episode’s having gone unproduced, but I wholeheartedly doubt that the script was designed to introduce Phyllis in a recurring capacity to RHODA. Rather, with the actress’ own series having recently been cancelled, this script smacks of attempted closure — in this case, on behalf of Phyllis and her relationship with Rhoda, the only original MTM character still on the air (in a comedy, anyway…) and the one to which she shares both the most visceral and comedically salient bond. I don’t see any metaphorical doors being opened so much as I see them being closed.

      In fact, I think the conversation between the two about their relationship and why they never got along is VERY final, which is precisely what it’s so meaty (or, more accurately, had the potential to be so meaty). And think about it: if the idea of Phyllis popping up after this episode had really been floated, there’d be no need to give these two characters a conversation that could potentially change their dynamic — for that would be counterintuitive to the comedy. I mean, why re-introduce Phyllis to the show only to mitigate the antagonizing effect she has on the title character? The only reason is clear: this was meant as a goodbye.

      Furthermore, I find it difficult to believe that Lloyd — or any of the RHODA producers — would ever consider that Leachman would consent to playing Phyllis again regularly, for as you said, Leachman would never go back from series star to ensemble player. (And I believe the show was definitely smart enough to recognize this!) If anything, she’d only agree to this one-off, highly promoted, resolution-giving episode in which she would have been touted as the outing’s Special Guest Star and possibly earned another nomination for her work, considering that the material is benefited from the strong emotional depth that only comes from the audience’s established history with the characters and their relationship.

      However, as we see it ultimately played out, Leachman probably decided in summer 1977 that closure was irrelevant; her show just tanked and she wasn’t going back, even for a week, to playing this troubled character who had become a shell of her previous incarnation as a result of anchoring the problematic PHYLLIS. And could you blame her for wanting to be done with Phyllis Lindstrom at the time? I couldn’t — although given the strength of this script (which I wonder if she read) in which her character’s presentation goes back to its origins, I believe this episode would have indeed provided Phyllis/Leachman closure and scored the actress some praise, if not another nomination. But, alas, as you noted, it wasn’t meant to be…

      • I didn’t personally see the script as closure at all. It tried at making amends between the two, yes, but that was more-or-less irrelevant in the end. In fact, from the Mary Tyler Moore show, Rhoda and Phyllis were always so diametrically opposed, I never felt that closure was even necessary between these two. They always went their own separate ways. Even though these two had their rivalries on MTM, there wasn’t enough thread of a relationship between these two characters to even warrant this type of relationship closure. My thought reading the script was, why here, why now? Probably what the Rhoda character should have also been thinking.

        No, I felt that this script was more of an attempt to open the door, not close it. That is, to bring Phyllis into this series as a semi-recurring role. Even at the very end when Phyllis was remarking, “You are kidding?” over and over without a reply from Rhoda, that to me says the door is firmly left open. If this really was closure, Rhoda’s answer would have been much more definitive. In fact, to fully close this relationship properly, we would have to see Rhoda and Phyllis parting in such a way as to understand that this attempt at a relationship was definitively over. I never get that vibe from this script. Such as, Rhoda once and for all kicking Phyllis out and stating seriously to never come back.

        To me, the script smacks much more of an attempt by the writer (or producer) to bring the Phyllis character back (at least for a short term stint). It’s possible the writer knew little of Leechman’s problems with her own series and wrote this as a last-ditch-effort (so to speak) to allow Leechman to have one last go at the character on another ongoing series. A kind of offer, if you will, for Leechman to have final closure for the character, collect a paycheck and possibly have some additional closure with Rhoda. But, the Rhoda closure was probably unnecessary. Closure for Phyllis yes, but not specifically in this episode. Perhaps a few episodes down the line, yes. In fact, to really do justice for the Phyllis character, I think it would have taken 3-4 episodes at a minimum to feel like we got what we needed for an ending.

        Assuming any of the above, the producers may have presented the script to Leechman with the expressed intent of contracting her under an occasionally recurring role. As we’ve already speculated, she likely turned the offer down which would have had to kill this script from the lineup automatically.

        • I agree that another encounter between these two characters was not directly necessary and its elimination was therefore not a loss to the series, but I simply don’t think there’s evidence to support the belief that the producers were considering a Leachman stint on RHODA to be a possibility beyond this single guest appearance — again, I don’t want to credit them with lacking that much self-awareness as to believe she would consent otherwise. (And David Lloyd contributed several scripts to PHYLLIS; he surely knew the character’s history and was privy to the ongoing characterization struggles.) Now, you may be correct about the show’s intention, but right now I think it’s baseless conjecture based on the script.

          Here’s why. From the text and the story, there’s nothing left open: Rhoda takes Phyllis to lunch with the express purpose of getting rid of her, Phyllis demands an honest conversation about their relationship (“if you really want me out of your life”), they discuss, and Phyllis leaves. There’s no indication she’ll be back in New York or will ever see Rhoda again. (As to the potential open-ending provided by the “You are kidding?” joke, that’s merely a tool used to end the scene on a laugh and to reinforce the idea that although the two have finally cleared the air, they’re not going to have a sudden miraculous turnaround. It’s a way of changing the relationship without changing the characters. Common tactic, especially from the MTM camp.)

          So with this, and for the reasons heretofore expressed, I disagree that the teleplay seems crafted as anything other than both a single one-and-done attempt at giving Phyllis a more dignified exit than she got on her own series and an opportunity to give the troubled RHODA a big promotable episode. If you feel this didn’t do a good job of providing closure for the Phyllis character, it may be more of a personal judgment call than anything else — one with which I partially agree, based on my belief that the conversation itself needed more fleshing out. The idea is there, but the execution begged for strengthening (and I think this is also a function of time constraints).

          Of course, we’re really quibbling about the show’s intent, and that may not ever be proven. I suppose finding the other three unproduced Season Four scripts could indeed provide more answers as to where the unstable show was headed before Ida’s return — but I don’t think Phyllis would be, or was thought to be, a factor beyond this entry.

  4. This is so great and the comments with your responses confirm so much. Thanks for this, Jackson! It’s all so fascinating!

  5. This is amazing! I think you’re right that it was Leachman who determined whether or not this script got made. But I’m curious about the other four scripts that went unproduced at the beginning of the fourth season – you said it was rare for RHODA. What do you think happened here?

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      The easy and probably part-true answer is, with the exception of the above, the scripts that fell out were deemed inferior to the ones that went into production. But I think there’s another more specific reason. Note the Season Four episodes that went unproduced were numbered #7151, #7152 (the one featured above — clearly a special case), #7154, and #7156, while all the scripts beginning with #7157 were filmed, along with #7153 and #7155 — the only two lucky exceptions from those first six teleplays. What do those last two have in common with #7152? The absence of Ida.

      My guess is that these first six scripts were written before it was known that Nancy Walker would indeed be returning to the show and they were thus thrown out when the decision was made to use her as much as possible. Note that she’s in #7157 (“The Weekend” — which is my chosen MVE for the year, by the way), #7159 (“The Job” — which sets up Rhoda’s new workplace), #7160 (“The Return Of Ida” — the season premiere that establishes her return), and #7161 (“Home Movies” — the first episode since Season Two to feature Martin). [#7158 is “Rhoda Loves Mike,” which doesn’t feature Ida, but does set up the events of “The Weekend” by introducing Mike, and was likely developed only to flesh out the latter’s story. The episodes were just conceived backwards.]

      So Ida’s presence is clearly a major factor in many of the first Season Four scripts to go into production, and I think her inclusion helps explain what was going on in the writer’s room during the time that those first few scripts were ultimately rejected. However, as “Your Old Friend Phyllis” indicates, each entry probably had an individual reason for its elimination. Hopefully one day we’ll find those scripts and get some clearer answers!

      • In an update to this answer, recent archival research I’ve uncovered indicates that Walker’s return to the fourth season of RHODA was confirmed approximately a few weeks before this script was dated, meaning that although Ida’s reappearance was known by the time a full draft was completed, the story for this entry — and likely the proceeding four — were developed prior to this knowledge (and before the terms, and the extent of her usage, were decided).

  6. Wonderful find! Thanks for sharing it. As you suggest, there would be some work required in revisiting this first draft. I think it falls short in a couple of significant ways. (Not that it isn’t funny–everything David Lloyd ever wrote was funny.) Initially, Rhoda seems so callous as to be almost cruel. Phyllis hasn’t really done anything offensive yet, so Rhoda’s treatment of her seems unreasonable. There is of course a history there, and Rhoda may have legitimate reasons, but no one mentions them and the last time they saw each other (the final episode of MTM), they were their usual passive-aggressive selves, but there wasn’t the kind of nastiness Rhoda exhibits at the beginning of this story.

    The other drawback is that the restaurant scene seems like a wasted opportunity. Phyllis sets up the scenario of wanting to discover why she and Rhoda could never be friends before, but they never get to her question. They share what they do like and admire about each other, and they insult each other plenty, but they never address that question which was the whole point of the lunch in the first place. We can infer that Phyllis is insecure and jealous of Rhoda, and consequently lashes out but that’s not anything new. We always knew that stuff. What you’ve said in the comments about closure makes a lot of sense, but I think that restaurant scene would have needed a little more truth to provide that closure.

  7. This was great to read! Thanks, Jackson!

    The reason Cloris Leachman did not do this episode was because she signed a contract with ABC following the cancellation of Phyllis. Cloris was prevented from appearing on Rhoda and from participating in the CBS On the Air festivities.

    • Hi, Jimmy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Thanks for clearing that up — you’re absolutely correct — it seems she signed with ABC in June 1977, just when this script was written.

  8. Hey, it’s awesome you found this! Thank you so much for posting!

    Ultimately, though, I agree that the script need something more. It just seems like one beat — Rhoda wants to get rid of Phyllis, over and over. Then that’s dropped for a second then repeated at the end.

    But then I even found the Rhoda/Phyllis rivalry tiresome on MTM.

    Some good lines, though, and I’m sure the actresses would have slayed it. Rhoda by season 4 was kind of running out of steam so having this calibre guest star certainly would have helped.

Leave a Reply