When Bonnie Franklin played her final scene on "One Day at a Time" three years ago, she could feel the responsibility of what she would do next weighing on her shoulders. After nine years portraying a divorced mother of two teen-age girls, she carried the label "Norman Lear legacy." She was determined to live up to the example her former boss had set for provocative television.
"Norman is a tummler ," Franklin observes, using a Yiddish expression usually applied to Borscht Belt comics who create a lot of noise. Franklin employs the term as a compliment. "Norman sticks pins in people and makes them think about things they wouldn't normally think about.
"He made it possible to talk about subjects on TV that had never been talked about before: mental retardation, teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on a family."
After the series ended, Franklin took her time choosing her next project. Finally she decided to tummel a little herself, playing a nun in "Sister Margaret and the Saturday Night Ladies," a CBS-TV movie airing tonight.
Produced by her own company, Poolhouse Productions, "Sister Margaret" was inspired by a true story about a nun who starts a halfway house for paroled female convicts in New York. Because the house is in such terrible condition and no money is available for repairs, Sister Margaret decides that the ex-cons should do the renovations themselves, thus learning useful trade skills.
Originally scheduled during the World Series and then yanked at the last minute, "Sister Margaret" has taken a particularly long time to be aired.
"I hope people will watch," Franklin says, adding mischievously, "I'd call all the Nielsen families if I knew who they were."
A short, trim redhead with a slightly salty vocabulary, Franklin, 43, wasn't exactly born to play a nun. But she is quick to point out: "The range of nuns is as wide as the range of women. This one is very reserved. Her strength comes from within.
"One thing I noticed when I met her was that she never moved her hands. She was very soft-spoken. Yet she had to be as tough as the women she was dealing with. They weren't Sunday school kids. She had a lot of battles with the church and with the construction workers union, which was not thrilled with the idea of having women ex-cons joining."
Warming to her character, Franklin continues: "Sister Margaret is not your most attractive lady. Although she was clean and neat, she didn't care about her outward appearance.
"If the character had worn a nun's habit, I think it would have been easier. I had no problem playing her, but when I got back to my dressing room and looked in the mirror, I'd say to myself, 'I went out in public like that ?' "
At work in her Studio City office, Franklin looks perfectly elegant wearing a long black skirt and fluffy green and purple sweater. But she has never made a point of getting on anybody's best-dressed list.
Her name is more apt to appear on a list like the Anti-Defamation League's Women of Achievement. In fact, on Wednesday she was honored by the ADL (along with Bea Arthur) for her consistently positive portrayals of strong, independent women.
Franklin didn't set out to be a role model.
"I was supposed to get married and have babies and have a teacher's credential to fall back on," she says.
But her parents distracted her with ballet and acting lessons.
"I was a bookworm, and my mom felt I should get out of myself," she remembers. "My four brothers and sisters also had lessons, but I'm the only one who took them seriously.
"I started performing at 9--plays at school, tap-dancing with Donald O'Connor on the 'Colgate Comedy Hour'--but I wasn't really serious about it."
When she was 13, the family moved from Hermosa Beach to Beverly Hills--"So I'd marry a Jewish boy," she explains with a chuckle. It didn't work. "My first husband was Catholic, although my second husband (producer Marvin Minoff) is Jewish."
After college (Smith and UCLA), Franklin did try being a housewife.
"It was so dull," she remembers. So at age 24 she got serious about show business. "Certainly there were better actors, dancers and singers," she says, "but I felt I had a chance at it. I may have been short and chubby, but I had an inner strength that got me through all the rejection."
Three years later, Franklin was winning awards for her Broadway performance in "Applause." Then a series of events occurred that led her to "One Day at a Time."
A musical director she had worked with at Smith offered her a job at the North Shore Music Theater.
"I met a man there, had an affair with him and then followed him to Phoenix," she remembers. "I figured I was this far out West, I might as well go and meet Norman Lear.
"The only two shows I watched then were 'All in the Family' and 'Mary Tyler Moore.' That's the kind of show I wanted. Ed. Weinberger (at MTM) couldn't have been less interested in me, but Norman and I fell in love in the first 15 minutes. He had a series idea he was working on." It became "One Day at a Time."
Now, after a three-year TV hiatus, Franklin would like to get back into the daily grind of another sitcom. "CBS has bought an idea for a series," she reports. It will be produced by her company and Universal TV, possibly next season.
Meanwhile, she is developing a musical based on the poetry of Judith Viorst. And she has signed to direct several episodes of a new series, "Karen's Song," for Fox Broadcasting.
"Nine years on a TV series was great training in a lot of different fields," she says. "It gives you an eye for casting and producing and a taste of politics and diplomacy."