Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sue Ann Nivens

Sue Ann Nivens was a fictional character on the long-running situation comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was played by television perennial Betty White.

Sue Ann Nivens was the relentlessly perky star of The Happy Homemaker on Mary Richards' fictional WJM-TV in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her program delivered advice to housewives on cooking and decorating. She chose unusual and sometimes ludicrous themes for some episodes, such as "What's all this fuss about famine?" and "A salute to fruit". Nivens was a perfectionist; she once confessed she would rather flush her Veal Prince Orloff down a toilet than serve it reheated. She was also full of helpful hints for all occasions and always ready to make lemons into lemonade; she once suggested buying colorful, happy goldfish as companions for the infirm and then, when the goldfish died, using them as fertilizer for houseplants.

Although Sue Ann presented an image of a sweet, perfect wife and homemaker on-screen, she was actually sardonic, man-obsessed, and very competitive, with a messed-up home life off-screen. Always with her trademark dimpled smile, she was cruel and snide toward people she did not like or considered a threat.

Sue Ann's debut on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was as a guest at one of Mary Richards' famously disastrous parties. At the conclusion of the party, Lars Lindstrom (the never-seen husband of Mary's friend and landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom), gave Sue Ann a ride home. Phyllis subsequently realized Lars and Sue Ann were having an affair because Lars came home with cleaner clothes than when he left. Mary was forced to mediate between Phyllis and Sue Ann to end the affair.

Eventually, Sue Ann and Mary became somewhat friendly, or perhaps were friendly adversaries. She often called Mary "Dear, sweet, naive Mary"; and she, along with Georgette Franklin, helped to fill the void when Phyllis and Rhoda left the show for their own spin-off shows. Nonetheless, Sue Ann's relationship with Mary could be competitive, as Mary, who was younger and more attractive, more easily drew the attention of men than Sue Ann could.

* Sue Ann also often sparred with news writer Murray Slaughter, making veiled remarks about his baldness.
* She was "very close" to WJM's children's television show host Chuckles the Clown, baking the first custard pie he ever sat in.
* The one man she most wanted to bed was Lou Grant. After being turned down on numerous occasions, she finally succeeded in a sixth-season episode ("Once I Had A Secret Love"); Lou went to great lengths to try to ensure that the rest of the WJM staff didn't find out about this.
* Sue Ann also had a younger sister, Lila (Pat Priest), with whom she had a severe case of sibling rivalry. Lila caused Sue Ann a lot of grief, especially when Lila made overtures to take over Sue Ann's show.

As the series concluded, Sue Ann's show was canceled because of low ratings. She worked for a time in the newsroom, but, in the final episode, she was fired, as was almost everyone at WJM.

Sue Ann Nivens exhibited a new dimension to White's talent. Often typecast as a sometimes cloying, gentle, innocent or seemingly demure woman who would occasionally say shockingly risque things the meaning of which she was unaware, White was able to distinguish herself as an actress from her body of work.

On The Golden Girls, debuting eight years later, White was originally cast as man-hungry Blanche; and Rue McClanahan, the befuddled Vivian on Maude, was cast as naive Rose. The two actresses realized how similar their new roles were to their previous ones and, at the suggestion of veteran comedy director Jay Sandrich, approached the producers about switching roles. The producers agreed, and the show went on to great success.

Allowing White and McClanahan to swap roles was what made Bea Arthur decide to take part in The Golden Girls. McClanahan recalled in an interview, "Bea told me, 'Rue, I don't want to do a show where Maude and Vivian meet Sue Ann Nivens', to which I said, 'No, Bea. I'm going to play Nivens and Betty White is going to play Vivian.'" Bea Arthur was then said to reply, "Interesting!"

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