The only major actors still alive from the 70s sitcom Rhoda

If the 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of the TV sitcom (i.e., the era in which the form was established and refined with beat-by-beat precision by shows like “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), the 1970s were its heyday. And when risk-averse TV executives saw the astronomical ratings of hit sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M*A*S*H,” they capitalized on the ratings-rich phenomenon by diving into the same but different world of spinoffs.

Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” was the king of spin-offs in the 1970s with a total of seven spin-off episodesbut James L. Brooks and Allan Burns’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” proved to be very durable, spawning “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” and “Lou Grant.” Of these, “Rhoda” was by far the biggest hit. Valerie Harper’s four seasons as Mary Richards’s lovable, vivacious neighbor more than confirmed that she could handle her own series. So Brooks and Allan sent Rhoda back to her hometown of New York City, where she immediately found love (her first-season wedding was the most-watched episode of television in the 1970s until “Roots” aired in 1977), tsuris (via her often-overwhelming mother brought to terrific life by the great Nancy Walker), and family bonding (via her unlucky-in-love sister Brenda, played by Julie Kavner).

“Rhoda” was a ratings juggernaut in its first two seasons, but faltered because the writers (perhaps wrongly) felt the character worked best as a single woman. They also struggled to expand the main cast. In its fifth season, Rhoda hit the same notes with characters stuck in ruts, which led to its cancellation.

It was a shame because we loved Harper, Walker, Kavner and the great actors who passed through the main cast. Sadly, most of these artists (Harper, Walker, David Groh, Ron Silver, Harold Gould and Ron Silver) have left us. But two key members of the cast are still with us. One you may not know so well, while the other is a piece of pop culture.

Ray Butkenica

Ray Butkenica’s bespectacled Benny Goodwin wasn’t the most impressive of men. He ran a toll booth, both during the day and on roller skates in his spare time. But he was a gentle soul who, when introduced in the series’ third season, was a fun romantic partner for the previously love-desperate Brenda. Benny had a competitor for Brenda’s affections in Ron Silver’s Gary Levy, but when the creative team wrote Gary out of the series before the fifth and final season, the door was open for Benny and Brenda to finally get engaged.

After the cancellation of “Rhoda,” Butkenica landed a series regular role as the best friend of “M*A*S*H” vet Wayne Rogers on CBS’s short-lived sitcom adaptation of the hit movie “House Calls,” and was a delightfully obnoxious foil to Patti LuPone’s stubborn mother on the ABC drama “Life Goes On.” While Butkenica worked steadily throughout the 1980s and into 2000, he was primarily cast as a lead actor in single episodes of hit shows like “Matlock,” “LA Law,” and “JAG.” He hasn’t logged an acting credit since providing voice work for the video game “The Sopranos: Road to Respect” in 2006. Whatever Mr. Butkenica is up to, we hope he’s feeling personally and creatively fulfilled!

Julia Kavner

Julie Kavner was a star from the moment we heard her. Sure, the 24-year-old newcomer looked the part of a despondent single looking for love in New York City, but once she spoke, she captured the attention and hearts of an entire nation of viewers.

Brenda Morgenstern was clearly a breakthrough role for Kavner, earning her a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, but work proved hard to come by in the years following the series’ cancellation in 1978. Fortunately, after a few TV guest appearances and a couple of unsuccessful film roles, Kavner landed a small but memorable part in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and reminded Hollywood just how special she could be.

Kavner’s career began in 1987, when she joined the sketch comedy cast of “The Tracy Ullman Show,” but it was that raspy voice that brought her lasting fame. Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons” was initially conceived as little more than animated intermissions interspersed throughout Ullman’s show, but Fox executives unexpectedly discovered a ratings goldmine when they tried the cartoon as a midseason replacement during the 1989-1990 television season. 35 years later, “The Simpsons” is still leading the ratings at 742 Evergreen Terrace, and it’s impossible to imagine the show surviving even half a season without Kavner’s abused but tireless matriarch MargeWhile Lisa, played by Yeardley Smith, is usually the conscience of the series, Marge is reliably its heart.

And yet, if we may note one small point: Kavner’s long-term success as a voice actress is remarkable, but it has come at the expense of her on-screen acting career. She has not appeared in a live-action film. Nothing since she played Adam Sandler’s mother in the 2006 film “Click.” To say we miss seeing her would be an understatement.

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