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Bill Persky, that guy from 'That Girl'

The classic sitcom he created with Sam Denoff paved the way for such independent-female series as 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' His new autobiography tells all that and more.

January 01, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Bill Persky
Bill Persky (Joe LaRosa )

Emmy Award-winning sitcom writer-producer-director Bill Persky was recently giving a lecture at New York University's film school when the topic of role models came up. Someone in the class wanted to know why he believed only women needed role models in TV and movies.

He didn't lose a beat.

"Boys are a lost cause," Persky quipped. "Guys have never needed — at least visibly — someone to be their champion. But women have needed it."

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Persky's been one of those champions. He and his late writing partner, Sam Denoff, created the seminal 1966-71 ABC comedy series "That Girl," starring Marlo Thomas as a struggling actress in New York who had a boyfriend (Ted Bessell) but was in no great hurry to tie the knot. "That Girl" helped pave the way for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and other series about independent single women.

And then Persky was a producer of the smart, award-winning 1984-89 CBS sitcom "Kate & Allie," starring Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin as recently divorced friends with children who move in together and become a family unit.

"I loved it," he said of the series, which gave him the opportunity to direct. "It was like a party every week."

Persky, 81, also brought that party atmosphere to his new autobiography, "My Life Is a Situation Comedy," which covers how he and Denoff got their big break from Carl Reiner as writers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," the genesis of "That Girl," branching out on his own, doing "Kate & Allie," as well as his three marriages and his relationship with his three daughters, the eldest of whom he raised on his own from the time she was 12.

Born in New York City, Persky moved back there in 1982 after working in Los Angeles for more than two decades. He's never missed Tinseltown.

"I really find Los Angeles a terrible place," Persky said by phone from New York. "I had an old Mercedes that I treasured, and I also had a beard I treasured. I stopped at the five-way stop sign in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and there were three other guys with Mercedes and beards and two guys with Rolls Royces and beards. I said, 'I don't belong here anymore.'"

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So Persky shaved his beard and left for the Big Apple. But he hasn't cut all ties with Los Angeles. Persky is in constant touch with Reiner.

"The best thing that ever happened to me in my life is Carl," Persky said with much affection. "With Carl, you walk away with some of his DNA. You are enthused with his values and his fearlessness. We talk about once a week, and he reads me stuff he's writing."

It was Thomas who approached Persky and Denoff about "That Girl."

"Sam and I had very different opinions about women," said Persky. "I was very women-oriented because of my sister, who was so important to me. Sam was a little tougher on women. He and Marlo had a lot of confrontations. I could agree with just about everything she wanted to do."

Female baby boomers thank him for creating the series about a contemporary career woman.

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"They say what a hero I am to them because I did the show," he said. "What's interesting is that a lot of teenage girls are getting interested in it. Their grandmothers are buying their grandkids the DVDs and loving it."

Besides writing his autobiography, he's penned blogs for the Huffington Post and has written, directed and even starred in a few short films he's posted on the Internet.

"But in terms of the industry, I don't kid myself, they are not interested in me. And that's fine."

Still, he added, "Some of my friends here are some of the best comedy writers there ever were, and if they turned us loose, we would do great shows."

susan.king@latimes.com

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