TV puppeteer Shari Lewis and publisher Jeremy Tarcher share one of the most liberated—if unopen—marriages in Hollywood. Jeremy says flat out, “I would vote for her for President,” and a lot of primarily presuffrage fans of her woolly-headed hero Lamb Chop would probably agree. In the meantime, they make a public display of their love and esteem by holding hands like kids—after nearly 19 years of wedlock.
It was Tarcher, now 44, who put together Shari’s first network children’s show for NBC in 1960 (she’s won five Emmys over the years) and collaborated with her on writing episodes for the likes of Star Trek. While Lewis, 42, is the star of her latest effort, The Shari Show, a monthly afternoon special on NBC’s five owned stations, Jeremy oversees production and scripts. He’s also published two of the 14 books bearing her byline. “One of the reasons there are no ego conflicts between us,” figures Tarcher, “is that we are in large part responsible for whatever success the other has had.” But once she landed on the network 16 years ago, Tarcher decided, “I had sold my sole star, and I didn’t think it was healthy for our marriage to be her manager or producer. It’s unwise to have all your ambitions directed toward one essential activity. I didn’t want us to become monomaniacs,” he explains. “Now we have two centers—hers and mine.”
His is the Sunset Boulevard office where J.P. Tarcher, Inc. is becoming the most profitable publisher on the West Coast, reaping royalties from such books as Joan Rivers’ Having a Baby Can Be a Scream. He has had best-sellers like the Mother Earth plant books, but some other titles like The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook would strain anyone’s schlock-absorbers.
Jeremy credits Shari, whom “most people see as a little girl,” as “the most important element in my adult life.” Though just over 60 inches high counting her strawberry blond bob, she is to Jeremy “10 feet tall. She is one of the most organized and self-confident people in the world. She could run General Motors better than it’s run today.” On the air, of course, Shari is just a flunky at Bearly Broadcasting, the wacky puppet-run TV station that’s a benign spoof of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Characters with names like Captain Person (a kangaroo who hosts a kiddie show) may sound precious to grown-ups, but children have made the low-key series a surprising ratings success in the face of mindless cartoon shows that aspire to the loudest common denominator. “Most of the cartoons,” complains Lewis, “are based on the pretend excitement of the chase,” and even Mary Tyler Moore reports “no qualms about being in Shari’s hands. She does quality work.”
Lewis was born in the proverbial trunk—but one that got sawed in half. At the age of 3 she began performing with her father, Dr. Abraham Hurwitz, an education professor at New York’s Yeshiva University, whose real passion in life was putting on shows for children as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s “official magician.” Shari’s father tutored her in legerdemain and sent her to classes in puppetry, juggling, baton-twirling, singing and ballet dancing. “Then he borrowed some dummies and loaded me down with books on ventriloquism,” she remembers. “I wasn’t a bit interested, but when I realized I wasn’t going to get out of the chorus line with my dancing, I agreed.”
By the age of 17, Shari had been a winner on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and caught up in an eventually losing early first marriage. She had her own local New York show when she met Jeremy, then an assistant program manager for a rival channel, through one of his old Army buddies. He tried to hire her away, recalls Shari, “but he couldn’t, so he married me instead.”
Tarcher was a bookish New York kid, son of a criminal lawyer mother and adman father, whose spiritual quest took him to St. John’s College in Annapolis and its Great Books curriculum and then to India to study Vedanta. “But when I met Shari,” he rhapsodizes, “I reached a higher level of consciousness. It was rare to find a woman with such a well-developed personality contained in one of the greatest little bodies…” “I thought he was the most elegant man I’d ever met,” Shari the Shape recalls with a laugh. “He’s so elegant he doesn’t even go to bed barefoot.”
For all their dynamism, Shari and Jeremy spent most of the ’60s between jobs. Bumped off U.S. TV by cartoons, Shari exported her shows to England, Australia and Canada. Jeremy helped found a publishing firm, Stein and Day. “It would have been Stein, Day and Tarcher if I’d been through analysis then,” he adds wryly. He was fired (before his four years of therapy) following a dispute with the majority stockholder. So he went out on his own, specializing in nonfiction and celeb properties like Johnny Carson’s Happiness Is a Dry Martini. “Since I’ve been in TV, I have more respect for performers than most publishers have,” Jeremy maintains. And his Hollywood base—and style (he trains his authors in TV promotion techniques)—have made him No. 1 in the West. “Being 3,000 miles from the orchestra,” he says of the more traditional East Coast, “we can make our own music out here.”
Shari is the family’s crusader, throwing her 100 pounds behind everything from women’s (“I’m no bra burner, but I’m not a closet libber, either”) to salamander rights. Her conservationist causes include saving California’s endangered bighorn sheep and the five-toed salamander. For five years she was leader of their 13-year-old daughter Mallory’s Girl Scout troop. While Mallory was growing up, the 60 puppets around their Beverly Hills house amounted to a family, and she slept with Lamb Chop. “It’s not the same thing as brothers and sisters,” says Shari, “but it’s all she got.”
The family awakes at 6 a.m., mostly to talk long distance to New York, and she begins work in her 11-phone office-cum-home. There is a housekeeper, and Jeremy generally returns for lunch.
“If you want to be a liberated woman,” theorizes Shari, “you have to have a liberated mother-in-law. How a man was brought up has to do with how he handles his wife.” Lewis apparently has no complaints about her own manhandling.