Bonnie Franklin, the actress who created an indelible television character playing a divorced, working mother of two headstrong daughters on the long-running series “One Day at a Time,” died Friday at her Los Angeles home. She was 69.
The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, her family announced.
By the mid-1970s, Franklin was a theater veteran who had earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway musical “Applause” when she was offered a different kind of role, one that was not then the usual fare on network television.
Developed by Norman Lear, the new CBS series would tell the story of Ann Romano, a divorced woman in her 30s who was raising two teenagers and building a new life for herself in her hometown of Indianapolis. Franklin’s character wasn’t the first divorced woman on network television; but the role, like those of other characters in Lear’s groundbreaking sitcoms, was infused with a new level of social realism.
Although network executives thought she looked too young for the part, Franklin was “a wonderful actress and woman — she ran very deep — and she was able to pull it off,” Lear told The Times on Friday.
“She brought a unique kind of wisdom — wisdom in someone who looks that young is especially appealing — and she was very good with those kind of lines,” he said. “She was an upper, really an upper, in terms of her attitude and her energy.”
On the show, Romano faced the same challenges that many newly divorced women confronted in real life: finding a job for the first time in years and struggling to collect child support payments and pay the bills.
Many episodes also detailed the character’s struggles as the all-but-only parent to her daughters: Julie, the older, rebellious one played by Mackenzie Phillips, and Barbara, the younger, less troubled sibling portrayed by Valerie Bertinelli.
Bertinelli said she regarded Franklin as a second mother.
“She taught me how to navigate this business and life itself with grace and humor, and to always be true to yourself,” the actress said Friday in a statement.
Pat Harrington Jr. played Dwayne Schneider, the nosy superintendent of the family’s apartment building, who provided comic relief during the show’s tense moments. Harrington was awarded an Emmy in 1984 as best supporting actor in a comedy series.
Franklin was nominated for an Emmy in 1982 and twice nominated for Golden Globe awards for her portrayal of Romano.
During its run from 1975 to 1984, which made its tenure among the longest of Lear’s series, the show tackled such provocative issues as teen sex, birth control and infidelity.
Franklin said she appreciated Lear’s willingness to explore sensitive themes — and his steady hand — in making the series a long-lasting hit.
“Norman sticks pins in people and makes them think about things they wouldn’t normally think about,” she told a reporter for The Times in 1987. “He made it possible to talk about subjects on television that had never been talked about before: mental retardation, teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on a family.”
On Friday, the producer voiced his own admiration. “You didn’t ask me if I loved her, and I did,” Lear said. “If anybody defined joy, she did.”
Bonnie Gail Franklin was born in Santa Monica on Jan. 6, 1944. Her parents were immigrants; her father, an investment banker, came to the United States from Russia and her mother from Romania. (She once noted that her red hair and freckles made people skeptical about her Jewish heritage.)
The family lived in Hermosa Beach, later moving to Beverly Hills. And early on, her parents enrolled Franklin and her siblings in dance and acting lessons.
“I was a bookworm, and my mom felt I should get out of myself,” she told The Times in 1987. “My four brothers and sisters also had lessons, but I’m the only one who took them seriously.”
At age 9 Franklin made her television debut, tap-dancing with Donald O’Connor on “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” She later had guest roles on such popular TV series as “Gidget” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
A graduate of Beverly Hills High School, she attended Smith College in Massachusetts before transferring to UCLA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1966.
After an early marriage ended in divorce, Franklin focused anew on acting. She won critical praise and a Tony nomination in 1970 for her Broadway performance in “Applause,” a musical interpretation of the 1950 film “All About Eve.” Franklin emerged from the chorus to sing the show’s title song.
Throughout her career, Franklin remained a multifaceted performer, putting together nightclub acts and taking on both comedic and dramatic roles. She played the main character in the 1980 CBS television movie “Portrait of a Rebel” about birth control activist Margaret Sanger, a serious turn that Franklin described as one of her most significant.
She also turned to directing, including episodes of “Charles in Charge,” “The Munsters Today” and “One Day at a Time.”
In 1980, she married television and film producer Marvin Minoff, with whom she had worked on the set of “Portrait of a Rebel.” They were married until his death in 2009.
Survivors include her mother, Claire Franklin; stepchildren Jed Minoff and Julie Minoff; two grandchildren; her brothers, Dr. Bernard Franklin and Richard Franklin; and sisters, Victoria Kupetz and Judith Bush.