What These 6 Great TV Moms Can Teach You About Playing a Mother

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Jane Wyatt as Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best.” Harriet Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Donna Reed as Donna Stone on “The Donna Reed Show.” 

These “ideal” TV moms were anything but ideal in terms of their stereotypical portrayals of women and the expectations they set for maternal behavior. Today’s definition of a family has changed dramatically from the nuclear model of the 1950s—and with these changes has come a welcome shift in how mother roles are written and played.

In celebration of Mother’s Day, here are six very different TV moms, from the 1960s to today, and what they can teach any actor about playing a mother.


Take a risk.

Diahann Carroll as Julia Baker on “Julia” (1968–1971)

Created by Hal Kanter, “Julia” was one of the first network series to feature an African American woman. Carroll played Julia Baker, a nurse and a widowed single mother with a young son.

“There was nothing like this young successful mother on the air, and we thought that it might be a very good steppingstone,” Carroll said in an interview with “Pioneers of Television” on PBS.

Today, of course, Carroll is considered a groundbreaker. But in the late ’60s, the response to the series was mixed, with many questioning the validity of what was deemed an unrealistic portrayal of the African American experience.

For an actor, then and now, stepping into a controversial role can be a risk. For Carroll specifically, it was, in her words, both a “professional boon and a professional hindrance.” 

Use your own experience.

Florence Henderson as Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch” (1969–1974)

“The only ‘step’ in this house is on the stairs,” says Carol on an early episode when her young stepson Bobby (Mike Lookinland) becomes nervous about stepmothers after watching “Cinderella” and gets the idea that he is unloved.

“We were a family sitcom, and I needed to make sure that the audience could relate to Carol Brady, both as a caring mother and as a mother who would discipline her children when needed,” Henderson said. “I needed to balance both."

Henderson made Carol the mother (or stepmother) we all wanted. “I understood the kids—I think I felt close to them,” she once told People magazine. “I was the only one on the set who was married—who had children, who had an ongoing relationship. The others didn’t.”


Be fearless.

Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner on “Roseanne” (1988–1997)

Roseanne Conner may not have been everyone’s idea of a dream mom, but the character was relatable to so many people. Her struggles were struggles viewers could identify with. The sitcom was built around Barr’s real, imperfect life—which set her character apart from the picture-perfect Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) on “The Cosby Show” or Harriette Winslow (Jo Marie Payton) on “Family Matters.” 

Unlike a typical trained actor, Barr was basically playing herself. She did not have any specific acting experience other than being onstage as a comedian, and she didn’t care what people thought about her character’s irreverence. It’s a great lesson to learn: Sometimes the real you is the star of the show.

Be inspired by many.

Doris Roberts as Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996–2005)

Unlike Barr, Roberts brought a wealth of acting experience to her three-time Emmy Award–winning role, using her skills and training to selectively craft Marie’s comedic nuances.

“Marie is so many things that are annoying, but I make you laugh,” said Roberts in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “The smart thing I have done with the character is I am a cross between Ray Romano’s mother, who is an Italian American, and [show creator] Phil Rosenthal’s mother, who is a German Jew. Putting those two together is Marie Barone, and that’s why you laugh at me.”

By incorporating these real women, she created one of the more memorable —and comically condescending—mothers in television history.

Break the mold.

Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls” (2000–2007)

Lorelai was a great mom, but she could also be immature, irresponsible, offbeat, and overly dependent on her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). Graham and Bledel are only 16 years apart in real life, which made the fact that they often acted more like best friends than mother and child seem believable.

“Looking back, it was so unique to see a single mom and a daughter who really related more as friends than in any traditional way,” Graham said. “This was a time when ‘Murphy Brown’ had just gone off the air, and that was sort of an innovative idea that she was going to be a single mom, and it was controversial.”

Graham found her voice and helped create a new template, which was not only a win for her, but for the rest of us who loved the show.

Let your character grow.

Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes on “Sex and the City” (1998–2004) and “And Just Like That…” (2021–)

For workaholic Miranda, the idea of parenthood was, well, nonexistent. Then, she got pregnant, her son Brady was born, and she married Steve (David Eigenberg). She found a way to balance career and motherhood. She even moved to Brooklyn! But when “And Just Like That…” catches up with Miranda almost 20 years after “Sex and the City,” viewers find her breaking up with Steve and exploring a relationship with nonbinary comedian Che Diaz (Sara Ramírez).

“There really is no substitute for seeing yourself reflected back at you. And we are all experts in taking characters that are not like us and doing a transference and translating them into our lives,” Nixon said in an interview with Out magazine. “But getting to see queer people and queer stories with a real authenticity to them is very important for me.”

The progression of any character, particularly in a long-running TV series, necessitates change. Like Nixon, it’s important to be open to that change and to let your role’s new experiences make the part authentic and interesting.

Marc Berman
Veteran journalist Marc Berman is the editor of the Programming Insider. He’s written for the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, NBC.com, and Emmy magazine, among other publications.
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