Friday, October 4, 2013

Who can turn the world on with her smile? Mary—with a little help from a lot of people

original MTM cast 

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll always consider “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (which ran on CBS, Saturday nights at 9:00pm from 1970-77) my all-time favorite tv show.  I think it’s partly because in that fall of 1970 when her show began, our family had also just moved (like Mary did in her first episode).  Okay so we didn’t move to Miinneapolis, but for a 9 year old like me, it was pretty tough leaving your neighborhood, school & friends behind.  And when I watched a nervous Mary stumble into her new life, I felt an instant connection.  She was sweet, and funny, and pretty—I was smitten.

So when I heard of this new book about the show, I wasted no time getting my copy.  Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.  (Click on the title to see the book on Amazon.)  

 I couldn’t put it down, but I can’t help but feel the title was a little misleading.  Yes we get to read all about Mary, Lou, Rhoda & Ted (and Murray and Phylllis too) but the book focuses just as much (if not more) on the series creators, James Brooks and Allen Burns, and especially on the women they hired—secretaries and female writers who helped make the show what it was.  Does Treva Silverman (one of MTM’s early writers) deserve her accolades?  Yes.  Do we need to read about her 2 year trek across Europe during the shows run, to find herself?  Not really, no. 

But it still delivers one helluva history lesson in early 70s television, and how MTM almost didn’t make it.  At the time, TV Guide wrote “this is preposterous, are they really making a show about a 30 year old spinster?”  Network execs worried the concept was too sophisticated for middle-class America, a single girl trying to make it on her own.  They reminded James Brooks that on ‘That Girl’, Marlo Thomas had Donald—and an apartment paid for by Daddy.  Where were the outlandish schemes?  The slapstick?  The laughtrack?  Brooks insisted it be about an ordinary woman living an ordinary life; a good ensemble would drive the show. 

The only reason it even made it to tv was because of ‘Laugh-In’.  Fred Silverman (the new head of programming at CBS) saw the ratings for it on NBC and wanted something urban and modern for his network too.  And in less than a year, TV Guide would be singing a whole different tune, calling MTM the “gold standard” for television comedy.

I love this:  Joe Rainone, a 26 year old accountant from Rhode Island was a fan and wrote long letters critiquing what worked & didn’t after each episode.  The MTM staff were so impressed, they flew him to LA for a week, for the taping of an episode.  Here he is (center) with Mary and James Brooks


But it really was a first, in many respects—no tv show had been written by an assortment of women before.  James Brooks said “when I put in the script that Mary says ‘I’ll go get cleaned up’, the female writers yelled ‘a woman would never say that!’”  The women also pushed for more realism, inisisting her apartment not be “all girlish and fluffy” and even limiting her wardrobe.  “No working girl has an endless closet.”  Mary would wear the same dress or blouse she’d worn on an earlier episode, with a different belt or scarf instead.

 Mary crochets while Rhoda watches tv; MTM received scores of letters from fans who considered these moments their favorite parts of the show

I loved reading about the casting too;  I thought I’d heard it all, but still found some surprising tidbits.  When Gavin McLeod (Murray) auditioned for his part, he asked why Ted Knight was there; it turns out Ted was also Gavin’s business manager.  Enemies on the show, they were close friends in real life.  The same with Cloris Leachman (Phyliis) and Valerie Harper (Rhoda).  Always at each others throats in Mary’s apartment, in actuality Cloris saw Valerie Harper as her best friend.  And when Betty White later joined the cast as Sue Ann Nivens, it turns out that she (and her husband, Allen Ludden of Password) were fixtures in the studio audience.  They’d never missed a taping of the show.


The author of this book, in front of the Victorian house where Mary, Rhoda & Phyliis lived.  Decades after the series ended, fans still flock to see it

I know I’ve gone on too much here but I’ve barely skimmed the books surface.  For instance, I don’t think the women of today realize the positive influence this show had—not just on women writers, but for women’s rights.  In one episode where Mary’s parents visit, her mother turns to her husband and says “don’t forget to take your pill dear”.  Mary is busy in the kitchen and answers “I won’t” then realizes it wasn’t meant for her, as her parents turn to stare.  A funny moment in one episode that made headlines—and got cheers across the country from the women’s lib movement.  Such a line wouldn’t be given a second thought today.

I own “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on dvd, and I’ve probably seen every episode more times than I’d care to admit.  But as a middle aged man, I watch it now in a different light.  Where before I’d be transported to Mary’s apartment, a single adult living in the city with funny and caring friends, it now reminds me of those Saturday nights in our little farmhouse, surrounded by my parents and brothers and sisters.  And I am home again.

I sure do love you, Mary!  Smile


  1. Doug, I've been curious about this book and you gave a really wonderful and fascinating synopsis of it. Guess I'll be requesting it from my library really soon!

  2. Thanks very much Pam--oh I think this book is right up your alley. It covers so much more than what I shared here--what happened to the cast in the years after, and how the 'ripple effect' from MTM is still occurring today. But it sure is a great glimpse back into the early 70s, you'll love it :)


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