Sitcom television in the 1970s featured a disproportionate number of liberated women, divorced or widowed, with or without children, making it on their own. CBS' blue (and pink) collar Alice was no exception, but for the fact of its tremendous success. Alice was one of the top 10 shows in most of its nine years on the air.
Alice was based on the 1975 film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which starred Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn in the title role. The next year, CBS aired Alice, starring Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt, the recent widow and aspiring singer from New Jersey who moves to Phoenix with her precocious 12-year-old son Tommy (Philip McKeon) to start a new life. While looking for singing work, Alice takes a "temporary" job (which lasted from 1976 to 1985) as a waitress at Mel's Diner, the local truck stop owned and operated by Mel Sharples (Vic Tayback, reprising his role from the movie). Mel was gruff, stingy, and famous for his chili. The other waitresses at the diner, at least at first, were Flo (Polly Holliday) and Vera (Beth Howland). Flo was experienced, slightly crude, outspoken and lusty, and became famous for her retort "Kiss my grits!," which could be found on t-shirts throughout the late 1970s. Vera was flighty and none-too-bright; Mel liked to call her "Dingie." The truck stop drew a fraternity of regulars, including Dave "Reuben Kinkaid" Madden.
Diane Ladd had played Flo in the movie, and when Holliday's Flo was spun off in 1980 (in the unsuccessful Flo, wherein the titular waitress moves to Houston to open her own restaurant), Ladd joined the sitcom's cast as Belle, a Mississippian who wrote country-western songs and lived near Alice and Tommy in the Phoenix Palms apartment complex. Belle was sort of a Flo clone; in fact, the only difference was the accent and the lack of catch phrase. Belle left after one year, and was replaced by Jolene (Celia Weston), yet another Southern waitress. In 1982, Mel's pushy mother Carrie (Martha "Bigmouth" Raye) joined and almost took over the diner. The fall of 1983 brought love to the hapless Vera, who, after a whirlwind courtship, married cop Elliot Novak (Charles Levin). The following fall Alice got a steady boyfriend, Nicholas Stone (Michael Durrell). Toward the end, things did get a little wacky, as is common for long-lasting shows; in one late episode, Mel purchases a robot to replace the waitresses.
In the last original episode of the series, Mel sold the diner, and despite his reputation for cheapness, gave each of his waitresses a $5000 bonus. Jolene was planning to quit and open a beauty shop anyway, Vera was pregnant, and Alice was moving to Nashville to sing with a band, finally. But viewers did get to hear Lavin sing every week. She over-enunciated the theme song to Alice, "There's a New Girl in Town," written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and David Shire.
Alice Hyatt was a no-nonsense, tough survivor, and her portrayer spoke out for equal opportunity for women. Lavin won Golden Globes in 1979 and 1980 and was one of the highest paid women on television, making $85,000 an episode and sending a palpable message to women. The National Commission on Working Women cited Alice as "the ultimate working woman"; its annual award is now called the "Alice."
Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.
Eftimiades, Maria. "Alice Moves On." People Magazine, April 27,1992, 67.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York, Penguin, 1996.