The Mary Tyler Moore Show (part one)

Where do I start? This intelligent situation-comedy ran for seven years and gathered an armful of awards. This was really a character-comedy because the shows were written around the ensemble cast.

Mary Tyler Moore sprang to stardom as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran for five seasons. Moore had a film contract when the Van Dyke Show ended. None of her films, including one with Elvis, did much at the box office. However, a television special she did with Van Dyke called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, proved to be a rating success. The network offered Moore a return to television, which she accepted.

Moore was married to television and film executive Grant Tinker at the time. If Moore was going to do a show, she would form her own production company, MTM Enterprises, Inc., to produce and own the show. Moore, Tinker and Arthur Price would jointly own the company.

The first of many problems was with Moore’s character. Although this was now 1970, the network balked at having Moore be a divorcee. She would be moving to Minneapolis after a breakup with fiancé, as that was more socially acceptable. This was not the first show about a young woman who left a small town to make it in the big city. You might recall a program called That Girl! starring Marlo Thomas. The difference was that the Moore character, Mary Richards, was leaving a long-term relationship and was now in the age 30 category. Mary Richards was also confronting a variety of issues that were taboo, like in the first show, getting a job in a television newsroom, an environment that was clearly a man’s world.

How much was Mary Richards like Laura Petrie? Enough that the network would not let the Richards character be divorced, viewers would think she divorced Dick Van Dyke. Yes, that was the thinking in 1970. There are certainly shades of vulnerability and awkwardness in both characters. Both also will stand for what is right and even when it is hard to do, although both have a difficult time delivering bad news to others. Both play off of a strong (but often mushy) male: husband Rob and boss Mr. Grant.

One might say the strength of the show is the incredible cast: Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Betty White and John Amos. This was a mixture of veteran actors and those on the cusp of fame. Asner, MacLeod and Knight had been tireless character actors for many years, moving between television and film, but never a face you could connect with a name. Leachman was the same, collecting a lot of credits, but not much recognition. That would soon change as she would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Last Picture Show. She started in television in the late 1940s, and was a very familiar face on the tube, and started getting a few film roles in the late 1960s. Betty White came later to the show, but was well-known in her own right. She starred in two different television shows in the 1950s, and even played a Senator in the film, Advise & Consent (1962). Harper was a working actor, who started as a dancer, doing a lot of theater and bit parts until she landed the role as Rhoda. Amos came late to acting, having been a football player in the 1960s, who found his way to television in 1970, working with Tim Conway. Gordy the weatherman would be in a few episodes and would later co-star in Good Times.

Gavin MacLeod, who just recently died, originally auditioned for the Lou Grant character, but later thought the character of Murray Slaughter better fit him. MacLeod was a familiar face on television and in a few film roles, usually in high energy comedic roles, but he proved very effective as the heavy, such as Big Chicken on Hawaii Five-O.

Jack Cassidy was offered the role of Ted Baxter, but turned it down due to having played a similar character on He & She. Cassidy did play Ted’s very vain brother in an episode. Ted Knight had been a busy actor like Asner and MacLeod, playing all kinds of characters, including four episodes of Combat as German soldiers. Knight also voice work including cartoons.

It is difficult to imagine anyone other than Ed Asner being cast as Lou Grant. Asner got his start in theater before appearing on television in the late 1950s. For the next decade he guested on just about every television show possible, while getting a few film roles including the heavy in El Dorado with John Wayne. Asner, the character actor, was usually the cop, soldier, doctor or other dramatic character. He even appeared in two Elvis Presley films, including Change of Habit, costarring Mary Tyler Moore. Asner was not cast in comedy roles, but Lou Grant would change that.

Others might point to the show’s writing, which created the situations and witty dialogue. Moore and Tinker hired some incredible writers and producers. James L. Brooks and Allan Burns created the show and served as executive producers during the seven-year run. Burns had a lengthy television resume, starting as a writer on the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show and writing for Fractured Fairy Tales, He created My Mother the Car, where he crossed paths with Brooks. Later, Burns wrote for He & She, Get Smart and Room 222. Brooks got his start writing for My Mother the Car, and then wrote for That Girl!, My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show, before he created Room 222. It is interesting that Burns and Brooks wrote for That Girl! and He & She, two shows laid the foundation for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Burns and Brooks hired Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, Dave Davis, Michael Zinberg, Bob Ellison, David Lloyd and Lorenzo Music, who would help with this show and create others for MTM Enterprises. These folks would go on to create Taxi, Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, Amen, Cheers, Wings, Fraiser, Caroline in the City, Becker, The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons and many others. From the creative tree of MTM, many successful television shows and films emerged.

MTM was one of the first shows to hire women to write scripts. Treva Silverman, Susan Silver, Jenna McMahon, Monica Johnson, Marilyn Suzanne Miller are some of the writers hired, and they would go on to write for other MTM shows. James Burrows, who would co-create Cheers and direct 237 episodes of the show, started out as a young director at MTM. Writer/producers Glen and Les Charles, who would create/produce Cheers and Fraiser, were young writers at MTM. Grant Tinker knew talent, and gave young writers and producers a place to learn and grow.

Most episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were directed by Jay Sandrich (119 episodes). Interestingly, Sandrich also directed episodes of He & She and That Girl!, in addition to The Bill Cosby Show, which was co-created and written by Ed. Weinberger.

Sandrich and I were pen pals for awhile. Actually, email pals. We talked about The Mary Tyler Moore Show in several of our conversations.

It’s funny that in all these years, no one has ever commented on the improvement in acting and writing on the series. The biggest problem I faced on MTM was that nerves caused overacting. Ted was the biggest problem, since he’d never done comedy or audiences shows. In rehearsal he’d be wonderful, but when we got in front of an audience the performance would get much bigger. As the season went on he started to relax, and by the 2nd season he’d add moments that he hadn’t done in rehearsal that were wonderful. I always tried to impress on actors that the real show would be seen in the audience’s living rooms so don’t play to the live audience that we were filming in front of. It was a much better time for TV comedies because there was much less network interference and shows we made for adult audiences, not the 18-35 of today.

STUDIO CITY, CA – MARCH 21: (L-R) Director Jay Sandrich and actors Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner and Valerie Harper attend the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters luncheon honoring Asner at the Sportsmen’s Lodge on March 21, 2008 in Studio City, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

I had mentioned to Sandrich that I believe the acting on the show improved as the actors settled into their characters and it became more realistic, rather than exaggerated or played for the laugh.

The iconic opening credits, of Mary driving to Minneapolis that ends with her throwing her hat in the air, was created by director Reza Badiyi, who also created the opening title sequence for Hawaii Five-O. Badiyi was a very successful television director over five decades. He worked with Robert Altman early in his career, and was the assistant director on the cult classic, Carnival of Souls (1962), which was mostly filmed around my hometown of Lawrence, KS.

End of part one.

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