In the early 1980s, Mary Hart became the face — and the famously insured legs — of a new breed of TV show, the entertainment news magazine.
She quickly rose from correspondent to anchor on "Entertainment Tonight," powered by a dazzling smile, unflagging charm and an engagingly deft touch with the celebrities who are the syndicated show's currency.
Many such TV magazines followed to satisfy the public's growing taste for Hollywood buzz, but what became a nearly 30-year run at "ET" made Hart the genre's queen bee.
Her legacy will be recognized Sunday with a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys ceremony, and Hart pronounces herself thrilled by the honor. She learned of it on a trip to Chicago last fall with husband Burt Sugarman and son AJ to catch a Dodgers-Cubs playoff game.
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"My jaw dropped," she said, when the TV academy called with the news. "I know Burt and AJ were looking at me concerned that something awful had happened, because I immediately got emotional."
"It makes me appreciate anew all of the years that I've been able to spend in television," especially her time at "ET," Hart said.
Bob Mauro, president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, said Hart is a worthy recipient. Betty White, Alex Trebek and Bob Barker are among past honorees.
"As a trusted anchor in the genre of entertainment news, Mary's ability to be embraced by both the stars she interviewed and the audience is the reason that 'ET' has been welcomed into homes across the country for so long," Mauro said.
Hart, born Mary Johanna Harum in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said that competing in the 1970 Miss America pageant (she was a top 10 finisher) gave her the poise and confidence to aim high — and led to an epiphany.
"I think it literally was the first time I was interviewed on television, I went, 'That's what I want to be doing. I would love to be talking to various people about everything,'" Hart recalled.
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She detoured as a high school teacher for three years in her hometown, but then TV beckoned, and she followed the path through TV news and hosting stints in the Midwest before heading to Los Angeles.
After dabbling in acting, including a role on "Days of Our Lives," she co-hosted a syndicated TV magazine and, with Regis Philbin, a short-lived national talk show in 1982. An interview with fledgling "ET" about the cancellation brought a job offer and an adventure.
"We broke ground in television," Hart said of the show. "We created the genre. And we all knew we were doing something new and fun, and it was hard but it was exciting."
She held the anchor job opposite a succession of partners, including John Tesh and Mark Steines, before shifting to "ET" special correspondent.
Photos and memorabilia surround Hart in her office, but she prefers to look ahead, not back. She still keeps her hand in as a host (she's served as emcee of the Palm Springs Film Festival for 13 years), but isn't Hollywood-centric.
She's follows world news and politics closely, she said, and was set to moderate a panel on the international refugee crises. She works with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Children's Hospital Los Angeles and is a National Geographic Society board member.
Asked to recount some of her career highs and lows, the unfailingly gracious Hart was game.
— She interviewed Richard Pryor when she worked on an Oklahoma City talk show in 1977 and found him gruff and uncooperative: "It was kind of an expletive-filled interview that was barely usable," she said.
He was a far different man when she talked him in the late 1980s, in failing health and apologetic for his transgressions. Hart and "ET" visited him regularly after that to check in and bring him fan mail.
"There was such a bond, and I had such appreciation for what a difference he made in millions of people's lives," she said. "And why every comedian today still refers back to Richard Pryor as being one of the biggest influences in their lives."
— An interview with Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman, then starring on TV's "Falcon Crest," was going well until Hart asked her about ex-husband Ronald Reagan, unaware that Wyman consistently declined to discuss him.
"Things immediately went straight into the toilet," she said, and worsened when Hart brought up the couple's children. "She stood up and said, 'The interview's over.' And that made me want to cry."
She didn't, she said, but it "was a mortifying experience."
— When Hart's impressive legs caught viewers' attention, her then-agent suggested insuring them with Lloyd's of London, reminiscent of a publicity stunt involving WWII pinup Betty Grable.
"I never dreamed it would have legs of its own, so to speak," Hart said. "Nor did I ever believe it would be a big news story. I think it was Dan Rather who opened the "CBS Evening News" one night saying, 'What do the Exxon Valdez and Mary Hart's legs have in common?' To me, that was one of the most astonishing headlines I'd ever heard or seen."