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Whitney Blake, 76; Star of 1960s' 'Hazel' Helped Create 'One Day at a Time'

October 02, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whitney Blake, the versatile actress who portrayed comedian Shirley Booth's housewife-employer in the long-running television series "Hazel" and co-created the edgier sitcom "One Day at a Time," has died. She was 76.

Blake died Saturday at her home in Edgartown, Mass., after a long illness, attended by her family and the Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, said her husband, writer-producer Allan Manings.

The actress, who also maintained a home in Malibu, portrayed Dorothy Baxter, wife to Don DeFore's George Baxter, from 1961 to 1965 on "Hazel," a series modeled on the maid of Ted Key's Saturday Evening Post cartoons.

The show, in which Booth actually ran the household rather than Blake, was so popular, Blake told The Times in 1963, because "we make people happy."

"We don't deal with deep problems," she said. "We have happy problems. People tell me it's refreshing to see our show, that they never miss it because they feel good afterward."

But the sitcom carrying Blake's credit as co-creator a decade later did deal with deeper problems and broke new ground by making a divorced single mother, played by Bonnie Franklin, the head of the household. "One Day at a Time," set in an Indianapolis apartment house with Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli as the teenage daughters, aired from 1975 to 1984.

Blake, who co-created the show with her husband for his boss, Norman Lear, was determined to depict a single-mother household because of her own family experiences. She had been raised by her divorced mother, and she was a divorced mother before marrying Manings, bringing up three children: sons Richard and Brian, and her daughter, actress Meredith Baxter. Her daughter had also been a single mother. All the involved children, Blake told The Times in 1975, "turned out fine, but there were terrible things that happened along the way."

Born in Eagle Rock and educated at Pasadena City College, Blake began acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and returned there as frequently as possible, playing everything from Shakespeare to musicals.

The stage may have been her preferred medium, but she became far better known during the Golden Age of television on dramatic anthology series such as "Playhouse 90" and the "Zane Grey Theater" and in early episodes of "Maverick" and "Bonanza." She was in the first episode of "Perry Mason" in 1957, as Evelyn Bagby in "The Case of the Restless Redhead."

On the large screen, Blake appeared in the movie adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel "My Gun Is Quick" in 1957; was Jack Webb's wife in the 1959 newspaper film "-30-"; and two decades later appeared with Laurence Olivier, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Harold Robbins' "The Betsy."

Blake, who was also an activist for civil rights, co-hosted her own local KCBS-TV Channel 2 daytime show "Boutique" in the late 1960s, interviewing guests and offering opinions about fashion, books and home decor.

In the 1980s, Blake tried another venue, producing and directing her own low-budget documentary: "Reno's Kids: 87 Days Plus 11." She said she was inspired to make the film after she read a Los Angeles Times article about Daly City teacher Reno Taini and his Wilderness Class for troubled teenagers, including drug addicts and delinquents.

It was the teacher, who was selected as California Teacher of the Year for 1982, not the teenagers, who intrigued her, Blake said.

"He creates in people the will and the tools to survive," she told The Times in 1988 after following Taini scaling desert rocks and walking a tightrope between trees. "My experience was, 'I can do anything after this.' "

The movie opened to good reviews and honors from the International CINE Council and the Chicago International Film Festival.

Asked about her cinema verite style, she said, "I was trying to edit real life into a form of theater."

She is survived by her husband, three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to Planned Parenthood.

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