Unless I missed one somewhere, it seems like many years (decades?) since any celebrity has been hailed as “America’s Sweetheart.” And that’s really not surprising, as it’s the kind of designation that many would now consider demeaning – an archaic expression left over from the oppressive patriarchy. Women don’t exist to be our collective sweethearts…etc.
I wonder how the stars of an earlier era felt after having that description bestowed upon them. They probably didn’t see it as demeaning, as there was sincere admiration behind what was intended as a compliment; but I could see how it might be limiting. Once you’re dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” you can’t be spotted doing Tequila shots at a biker bar.
It’s an expression that belongs to another time and place, when the public persona of celebrities was more carefully crafted, and millions of people didn’t have phones with video cameras in their pockets, always ready to catch the moment when a beloved public figure slipped from her pedestal. Everyone is an open book now.
When the term was in vogue it fit naturally onto some Comfort TV stars, praising some combination of the characters they played and the delightful intrinsic qualities of beauty, charm, and kindness they brought to the role – or, in the case of variety show stars, the warm and engaging personality they projected.
Who were they? I offer ten selections below.
I could find no official criteria for Sweetheart status, but it stands to reason that one prerequisite is a certain level of national acclaim – you can’t be America’s Sweetheart if most of America doesn’t know who you are. That was easier to do in the pre-cable era of television when we were all watching the same shows.
It’s also a phrase associated with wholesomeness and even innocence – If you went out with America’s Sweetheart you didn’t take her back to your place – you took her to the malt shop, or home to meet mom. Of course we knew we never had a chance with these lovely paragons – but at least they would be nice enough not to laugh if we asked them out.
The Mouseketeer turned beach girl turned Skippy spokeswoman was the first America’s Sweetheart created by television. At the age of 15, Annette received 6,000 fan letters a month. And unlike many young women who would bristle at being associated with family-friendly Disney entertainment (back when Disney still provided that), she accepted the responsibility she felt came with that fame. That was why she went along with Walt Disney’s request that she only wear a one-piece bathing suit in her beach movies with Frankie Avalon.
There’s a reason why the generation that first loved her never lost that devotion, and grieved so deeply when she was diagnosed with MS, and later passed from that disease. Read some of the comments on her YouTube videos. They’re incredibly touching.
Another obvious choice, but I sang her praises already in a recent tribute blog so let’s move on.
Through her Emmy-winning portrayal of teacher Alice Johnson on Room 222, Karen Valentine had that plucky underdog quality that put viewers in her corner as she coped with the challenges of a difficult and sometimes hazardous profession. She was naïve and nervous but never dumb – this was not a series that would ever portray a teacher that way. Sadly, Valentine never found another role as perfect for her, but this one is enough to secure her Sweetheart status.
Even among a cast as big and colorful and talented as the stars of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Goldie Hawn always stood out. Was she really that ditzy blonde who couldn’t read a line without giggling, or was that as much a made-up character as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine? We found out later that at least some of her confused responses and spontaneous laughter were authentic, because producers would slip new, unexpected (and occasionally dirty) words into the cue cards they had her read. Either way, for a while it was one of the most adorable things on television.
Had Gidget lasted longer than one season, it might have locked her public persona in permanent Sweetheart mode. Maybe it still did, as three years of wearing a nun’s habit still couldn’t shake that image. Like Goldie Hawn she made the jump to movies when that was still a rare feat, and won an Oscar. But even now, in her ‘70s and after a long and distinguished career, she still resembles that girl who’s ready to grab her surfboard and ride the next big wave.
Doris Day first acquired Sweetheart notices when she was still a band singer in the 1940s, and kept them through dozens of movie musicals. By the time The Doris Day Show debuted in 1968, she had held onto the affection of her audience for more than 25 years, a testament to how “America’s Sweetheart” status is something you can never outgrow. Day also enjoyed poking fun at her image with typical Midwestern modesty, especially on her many wonderful TV specials. She understood that it was nice to be thought of in such an affectionate way, but one didn’t have to take it too seriously. Oh, for the days when we didn’t take everything so life-and-death seriously.
Mary Tyler Moore
She had already played a happily married wife and mother on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and to great acclaim. But Mary’s America’s Sweetheart status didn’t really kick in until The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As a single 30-ish career woman trying to make it on her own, Mary Richards always had the audience on her side while dealing with an occasionally intimidating boss, an egotistical news anchor, and a never-ending succession of bad dates.
I know for a fact that a lot of teenage boys who had the Farrah Fawcett poster on their wall in the 1970s also harbored a secret crush on Marie Osmond.
It wasn’t cool to like the Osmonds back then, but if you watched Donny & Marie (secretly or otherwise) you saw those moments when she subtly let you know she thought a lot of this stuff was pretty corny too, even as she gladly delivered punch lines in whatever crazy costume that week’s comedy sketch required.
The 1970s were a decade with more beautiful prime time stars than any other; there were Charlie’s Angels, of course, and Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, Daisy Duke, and your Cruise Director Julie McCoy – but they were all impossible dreams. And then there was Valerie Bertinelli, who was likewise out of my league, but at least she was in my age group.
Was there really any other reason to watch One Day At a Time, at least until fellow Sweetheart Shelley Fabares joined the cast? She had one of those smiles that just burst through the TV screen and into your heart. No wonder Eddie Van Halen married her; if we were Eddie Van Halen, that’s exactly what we would have done too.
Look, I don’t make the rules. And I get that this is a status a journalist would reject more vociferously than an actress or singer. But when Couric joined NBC in the ‘80s and got promoted to Today Show cohost not long after, that title locked onto her like a targeting missile and wouldn’t let go.
Who did I miss? Did you
have an ideal America’s Sweetheart classic TV star? Is there anyone on TV now
that would qualify? Let me know!
David--I just loved this. I'm sure a lot would offer up all kinds of women, but you defined "America's Sweetheart" so well. In fact, the minute I saw the title of your post I thought "Sally Field--Karen Valentine". Man, how awesome you had them here! I'm not going to argue with Mary Tyler Moore either as I've been in love with her (and Sally Field) since I was 8 years old. If I was going to add one from this retro era, I'd include Lauren Tewes from Love Boat. If I was going to pick one TODAY, it would have to be Quinta Brunson from Abbott Elementary. That young lady is an absolute doll! And finally, if I had to pick a winner, America's No.1 Sweetheart--hands down, Sally Field!!ReplyDelete
As usual we are on the same wavelength - and yes, Lauren would have been another great addition to the list! I don't watch any current TV, but I trust your judgement on Quinta. Glad there's still someone out there that would qualify.Delete
No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but do you think ANY daytime-soap actresses of the 1980s would have qualified as "America's Sweetheart" back then? How about Genie Francis? Kim Delaney? I do admit that Susan Lucci played a b---h on "All My Children." Did you catch any parts of Meg Ryan's 1982-84 stint as Betsy Stewart on "As the World Turns," Mr. Hofstede?ReplyDelete
Going to primetime actresses, do you Lynda Day George of "Mission: Impossible" fame wouldn't have qualified as "America's Sweetheart" since she played her share of villanous parts? (Remember her Fausta Grables character in that one "Wonder Woman" episode?) I know Heather Locklear has been a troubled gal in recent years, but is it true that she wouldn't have qualified as "America's Sweetheart" even during the 1980s since her Sammy Jo Carrington character on "Dynasty" was a b---h? Stephanie Zimbalist did play a private detective on the 1982-87 series "Remington Steele," but she had played a young murderess in the 1980 TV movie "The Babysitter." Randi Oakes appeared as Officer Bonnie Clark on "CHiPs" from 1979 to 1982, but she had previously played a car thief in a 1978 "CHiPs" episode entitled "Down Time." Would playing a cop or private detective have disqualified an actress from being "America's Sweetheart" back in the '70s or '80s?
Kim Delaney comes closest for me among soap stars of that era.Delete
I would definitely say Meg Ryan was a good example of a late 80's/early 90's cinematic Sweetheart.Delete
What, no Sandy Duncan? Even Scooby-Doo crushed on her.ReplyDelete
That was a borderline call - I just thought her undeniable Sweetheart status was more a product of stage than TV.Delete
She maybe didn't have the star power or body of work as the others in your list, but for me Dawn Wells in her GI prime was the epitome of an American Sweetheart.ReplyDelete
Mary Ann, Mary Ann, Mary Ann!
You're right! Though I don't believe that show or its characters really became pop culture icons until they had been in syndication for several years - so by the time she acquired that status she had long since left the island.Delete
No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but you didn't mention the late Gilda Radner, who was considered "America's Sweetheart" by many. I do admit that Gilda was one of the original "Saturday Night Live" cast members, and the show had a...spicy sense of humor during Gilda's 1975-80 stint as a regular.ReplyDelete
By the way, Mr. Hofstede, Sally Field was recently brought up on "The Megyn Kelly Show." You might want to check out the following URL: