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Creators & Cast of It's A Living? That Have Passed Away

Creators & Cast of It's A Living? That Have Passed Away

by Dario Witer

Cast of “It’s a Living” ABC TV 1980Since the It's A Living franchise ended production back in 1989, five people associated with the program have since passed on.  Let's take a look at the folks that were in front and behind the camera during their time on the show.

  Dick Clair (born Richard Jones on November 12, 1931, in San Francisco, California) and Jenna McMahon (born Mary Virginia Skinner on May 24,1925, in Kansas City, Missouri), the two co-creators of It's A Living, had met each other around 1961 or so in Southern California, when Jenna established a playhouse there and was teaching acting classes at the time.  The both of them quickly formed a comedy team called Clair & McMahon and performed quite a bit in nightclubs.  They later appeared on television in shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71), The Merv Griffin Show (1962-63; 1965-69; 1969-72; 1972-86), and finally, The Dean Martin Show (1965-74).  Currently (as of this writing) on YouTube, there is a wonderful sketch that Jenna and Dick did in the early '70s on Dean's show that is marvelous to watch; it is an interview sketch in which Dick talks to a nun (Jenna) who tap dances. 

Also on YouTube, the both of them appear in a April 1967 episode of the Ed Sullivan Show which was recently uploaded. Check both videos out whenever you can on YouTube by typing "Clair & McMahon."

  Dick and Jenna began writing TV scripts in the early 1970s when their comedy act started to dry out.  They wrote episodes for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78).  In 1973, Dick and Jenna joined the writing staff of The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78), where the both of them won three Emmy Awards for their writing efforts on the show (1974, 1975, 1978).  Afterwards, Dick and Jenna wrote episodes for the soap opera satire Soap (1977-81), co-created the Diff'rent Strokes (1978-86) spinoff, The Fact Of Life (1979-88), after having written the first season finale of Diff'rent Strokes which featured the main characters of that soon-to-be hit show for NBC.  Later on, Dick and Jenna joined forces with film & TV writer Stu Silver to create the show that all of us know so well as It's A Living for the ABC television network.

  After It's A Living was canceled by ABC in 1982, Dick and Jenna concentrated their efforts on a sitcom based on an old Carol Burnett Show sketch called "The Family."  The name of this comedy sketch spinoff became "Mama's Family," which originally aired as an NBC program for a season and a half (1983-84) before it was revived for first-run syndication in 1986 to great success.

  Also in 1986, Dick was diagnosed with AIDS and was soon hospitalized for his condition.  In 1988, Dick won an important lawsuit in regards to being allowed to have his earthly remains to be cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen (Roe v. Mitchell; Clair was "John Roe" in the lawsuit) until a cure for AIDS was found.  That would happen afterwards when Dick died from multiple AIDS-related infections on December 12, 1988, at age 57.  As for Jenna McMahon, she produced the very short-lived Julie Andrews sitcom, Julie, which lasted from May 30 to July 4, 1992.  Soon afterwards, Jenna retired from show business altogether and died of heart failure on March 2, 2015, at age 89.

 

Cast of “It’s a Living” Bert Remsen ABC TV 1980  Bert Remsen, born Herbert Birchell Remsen on February 25, 1925 in Glen Cove, New York, was a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War II and suffered some serious injuries during the attack of his ship, the USS Laffey, in the Battle of Okinawa on April 16, 1945.  Despite receiving burns from the attack, he and his crew proceeded to perform their duty until the enemy was defeated (Bert received the Purple Heart during his tour of duty, according to IMDB).  After the war, Bert went to Ithaca College in New York and did summer stock for 10 years before entering film and TV work in 1952.  Before this, Remsen was married to actress Katherine MacGregor (1925-2018) for a brief time (1949-50); she is best known for the role of Mrs. Olsen on the popular 1970s family drama Little House On The Praire(1974-83).  

  Remsen appeared in many popular TV shows from 1950s through the 1990s.  In 1964, while filming an episode of No Time For Sargeants (1964-65), an 84-foot crane fell to the ground, damaging the set and injuring Remsen in the process.  Thanks to that accident, Remsen would walk with a crane for the rest of his life.  He quickly became a casting director for both films and television and a name for himself in that profession. 

Six years later in 1970, Remsen was hired by director Robert Altman to be the casting director for the film Brewster McCloud.  Altman persuaded Remsen to take a character role for the film as a personal favor, which he did.  Brewster McCloud relaunched Remsen's career as an actor and he appeared in several films for Altman, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975).  He also began reappearing on television in many of the popular programs of the era, as well as television commercials for various well-known products.  In 1980, he was cast as Chef Mario on It's A Living, but was let go after the first season due to the program's low ratings.  Remsen continued to work in films and television until his death from heart failure on April 22, 1999 at age 74.  His second wife, Barbara Joyce Dodd, a noted casting director like Bert, survived him by 19 years (d. 2018).

Cast of “It’s a Living” ABC TV 1980  When the syndicated version of It's A Living was launched for broadcast in 1985, actor Richard Stahl was cast as the third chef of Above The Top, Howard Miller, a Korean War vet.  Stahl, who was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 4, 1932, began his acting career in the 1950s by studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City.  After studying at that institution, Stahl then went to Off-Broadway where he performed in several plays there.  He met Kathryn Ish in 1959 and they quickly married each other soon afterwards. Later on in the early '60s, Richard and Kathryn moved to San Francisco, California where he became a member of an improv group called The Committee. 

  In 1966, Richard began his film & television career by appearing in such shows as That Girl (1966-71), Bonanz a(1959-73), Love American Style (1969-74), The Partridge Family (1970-74), among other shows of that era.  The TV show that Richard had the most appearances in prior to It's A Living was The Odd Couple (1970-75), where he appeared in a total of 9 episodes in 9 different roles, according to Wikipedia.  As far as film work was concerned, Stahl appeared in such films as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Billy Jack (1971), Beware! The Blob (1972), High Anxiet y(1977), 9 To 5 (1980), The Flamingo Kid (1984), Overboard (1987), L.A. Story (1991), The American President (1995), and Ghosts Of Mississippi (1996), just to name a few.

  Stahl retired from acting in 1999, three years after he was stricken with Parkinson's Disease in 1996.  He died on June 18, 2006 at age 74.  His wife Kathryn followed him to the grave on December 31, 2007, from cancer, at age 71.

Marian Mercer of “It’s a Living” ABC TV 1980  As of 2021, the biggest loss of the cast & crew of It's A Living has so far been the late Marian Mercer, who played the maitre d' of Above The Top, Nancy Beebe.  Born Marian Ethel Mercer on November 25, 1935, in Akron, Ohio, Marian was a graduate of the University of Michigan who went into the acting profession upon graduation by performing in summer stock for a couple of years before debuting on Broadway in 1960, in the short-lived musical Greenwillow.  Two years later, Marian appeared in New Faces Of 1962, where she drew critical praise for her performance in that musical.  Six years later, in 1968, Marian appeared in another musical called Promises, Promises, which was based on the classic 1960 film The Apartment, which was written and directed by Billy Wilder. 

Marian scored three awards for her performance as Marge MacDougall: a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance, and the Theater World Award.  Besides those two shows previously mentioned above, Marian also did HayFever, the 1924 Noel Coward comedy about a rich British family who are so self-absorbed with themselves that they are oblivious to the effect their fights have on friends and strangers alike, and, the 1978 revival of Stop The World - I Want To Get Off, which featured Sammy Davis Jr. as a principal cast member.

  As far as motion pictures were concerned, Marian had few credits to her name: John And Mary (1969), starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, Oh God! Book II (1980), and 9-To-5 (1980).  Marian also appeared in two TV movies: The Cracker Factory (1979; ABC), starring Natalie Wood, and Murder In Three Acts (1986; CBS), featuring Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis.

  Marian appeared in such TV shows as The Sandy Duncan Show (1971-72), Love, American Style (1969-74), The Dom Deluise Show(1968), among others, before having a recurring role in the controversial sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77), where she played Wanda Rittenhouse Jeeter, a bisexual suburban housewife who has an affair with her maid Lila.  It was her biggest breakthrough on television before being cast as Nancy Beebe on It's A Living, the show that Marian is most remembered for.

  Marian continued acting until the year 2000, appearing in such shows like Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), Touched By An Angel (1994-2003), and Suddenly Susan (1996-2000).  Sadly, Marion was stricken with Alzheimer's Disease and died from its effects on April 27, 2011, at age 75 in Newbury Park, California.  At the time of her death, Marian left behind a sister, her second husband Patrick Hogan (she was previously married to a man named Martin Cassidy), and her daughter Deidre Whitaker. 

 

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