Who can turn the world on with her smile?
--Theme song for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Moore was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, where, among other things, the Dodgers played.
When she was eight, she moved with her family to Los Angeles.
I don't know that there's any connection, but the Dodgers eventually followed suit.
At 17, Moore decided to become a dancer. Her first job was as "Happy Hotpoint", a dancing elf in a series of appliance commercials.
She also did pinups.
Deciding she'd like to act as well as dance, Moore auditioned but was turned down for the part of the eldest daughter on a show called Make Room for Daddy, which later became The Danny Thomas Show. Thomas later explained that "no daughter of mine would have a nose that small."
The size of Moore's nose didn't matter much when she played David Janssen's secretary on Richard Diamond Private Eye. You never saw her face.
While Moore was looking for her show biz niche, this fellow was trying to expand his. Carl Reiner had achieved a certain amount of celebrity as Sid Caesar's sketch comedy sidekick throughout the 1950s (Your Shows of Shows, Caesar's Hour), had done some uncredited writing for Caesar as well, and now had an idea for a sitcom in which he himself would star. He would play Rob Petrie, a writer on a sketch comedy show who had a wife and young son waiting for him at home. The network liked the idea, just not with Reiner as the lead.
Still wanting to go on with the show, if only as the producer and head writer, Reiner enlisted the services of this up-and-coming actor, who had just had a hit on Broadway (Bye, Bye, Birdie).
So who would play Rob Petrie's wife, Laura? Danny Thomas, whose production company would bankroll the show, remembered the girl with the three names, and suggested her to Reiner. As you can see in the above picture, they seemed to hit it off (um, is it my imagination, or does his head look a little different than before?)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1967), today regarded, and rightfully so, as a television classic.
Well-written as the series was, I think the part of Laura Petrie may have been somewhat underwritten. For a good reason, though. She wasn't the main character, her hubby Rob was. And a good deal many stories revolved around his job as the head comedy writer for The Alan Brady Show. And in those episodes, he spent more time with Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), and Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) than Laura, who had to wait for her husband to come home and tell her all the fun he'd had at work.
Nevertheless, you saw enough of Laura to get some idea of her character. She was reasonably intelligent, reasonably kind, a reasonably loving mother to Richie, a reasonably loving wife to Rob, reasonably good at helping her husband off the ground after he tripped over the ottoman. Was there anything else? I've read various obituaries of Moore to see if there was anything further I could say about Laura Petrie. Here's what I found:
"...sporty capri pants..."
"...hip-hugging capri pants"
"...she even caused a small controversy by wearing capri
"...made capri pants wildly popular..."
"...rocked America's gender norms with capri pants..."
...sleeping arrangements notwithstanding.
Whatever his reasons for hiring her, it's to producer Reiner's credit that he soon realized that this particular brand of eye candy had a secret and hitherto undetectable ingredient: ENORMOUS comedy talent.
The tears. Nobody, not Lucille Ball, not even the great Stan Laurel, could produce a funnier crying jag than Moore-as-Laura.
Host: Have you ever been to Alan Brady's house?
Laura: Oh, yes. Many times.
Host: Does he wear his toupee at home?
Laura: Oh golly, yes. He wears it all the time.
Host: You mean that Alan Brady is really bald?!?
Host: Then why does he wear a toupee? (to audience) That's it, ladies, the secret is out. She knows, and she said it! How about that, folks?
This is not information Alan Brady wanted to get out. Believing her husband's job is now in jeopardy, Laura goes to Brady's office to make amends.
Despite Brady's apparent anger, Laura's revelation gives his show a lot of free publicity, and she and her husband find themselves off the hook. That's producer Carl Reiner playing Brady (remember me showing you the first-you-see-hair-then-you-don't photos earlier?)
The Alan Brady Show was supposed to be a variety show, a TV genre quite popular in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. For those of you too young to remember Milton Berle, Dean Martin, or Carol Burnett, among many others, a variety show was basically an aggregate of comedy sketches and Broadway-style musical numbers. Actually, that's a pretty good description of The Dick Van Dyke Show itself. Most of the central characters had performing backgrounds of one sort or another. Rob had been a disk jockey and and a bandleader in the army. Buddy was a borscht belt comic who once had his own show in the early days of television. He and Sally also have a nightclub act. Even Laura and Millie had been in the USO. Thus, in many an episode, the story being told would end prematurely so we could watch all the main characters sing and dance. To be honest, I used to find that kind of annoying. Not that I don't like Broadway-style musical numbers. I very much do, just not in a sitcom. I felt I was being cheated, that the writers were slacking off, unwilling or unable to come up with enough jokes to fill a half-hour. I've since changed my mind. Maybe it's because Broadway-style musical numbers have become so rare on TV these days (you're most likely to find them on PBS, of all places) that I'll take them wherever I can get 'em, even on old reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Besides, this cast was really quite good at singing and dancing, including Moore, who, if you'll remember, originally wanted to be a dancer.
Watching that, I now wish the show's writers had slacked off more often.
The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air after six seasons, but not at the insistence of the network. Still getting very high ratings, producer Reiner simply wanted to go out strong. Over the years the show had won 15 Emmys, including three for Moore (after the first one she said, "I know this will never happen again.")
Moore did a few movies afterwards. Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) with Julie Andrews as the title character was the most successful. The comedy takes place in the 1920s, and Moore looked just as good in a flapper dress as she did in capris.
How she looked in basic black is matter of opinion. In A Change of Habit, Moore has to choose between God or Elvis Presley. While I'm sure many of you would choose the latter, Moore's much better off with God, at least as far as this movie is concerned. It's not religious conviction that makes me say this. It's just that Moore and Elvis have absolutely no chemistry together. Maybe if they had added a Broadway-style musical number. Or even Off-Broadway (Nunsense came about two decades too late to help this film.)
Let me go back to The Dick Van Dyke Show for just a second. Van Dyke's brother Jerry, a very funny fellow in his own right (remember him as Luther in the '80s sitcom Coach?) appeared on several episodes as Rob's brother Stacey. Someone must have thought that since one Van Dyke scored with a sitcom, so could another. Maybe one that would last six years.
It was not to be. My Mother the Car, frequently cited as the worst TV show of all time (I can't say since I've never seen it), certainly had one of the oddest premises ever. An attorney played by Jerry Van Dyke goes to a used car lot, and finds out his mother (voiced by Ann Southern) has been reincarnated as a 1920s automobile! The show lasted only one season, and Moore doesn't appear in a single episode. So why am I even mentioning it?
Because of this guy, Allan Burns (bit of a problem googling that name--I kept getting Gracie and George.). He and his partner Chris Hayward started out writing for the animated Rocky and His Friends, later renamed The Bullwinkle Show. Perhaps not the most prestigious assignment in the world, but it was a way of breaking into show biz. They then went from writing cartoons to writing live-action cartoon shows, such as The Munsters, which they created. You have to remember that in addition to social upheaval and the Vietnam War, the 1960s was also the era of the silly sitcom: Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mister Ed, The Addams Family, etc. My Mother the Car would have fit right in, except it didn't (maybe it wasn't silly enough!) Burns and Hayward were simply going where the work was. They broke up soon after the MMTC debacle, Hayward going on to produce, in the more sophisticated sitcom era of the 1970s, Barney Miller. That sophisticated sitcom era would serve Burns well, too. In fact , he would help bring it about. It all started when he went to a party and met this fellow:
James L. Brooks had been a writer for CBS News in the early 1960s. By all means this would have been, in that pre-Twitter era, a highly prestigious and highly paying job. Nevertheless, he quit in 1965 and moved to Los Angeles. As Brooks himself once said "I still haven't quite figured out how I got the guts to do it." Well, there IS that one neighborhood in LA. You know, with all the movie studios. Hollwood has a way of fortifying even the meekest among us. But Brooks still more or less stuck with news, writing documentaries for producer David Wolper. Unfortunately, Wolper's company had to cut back and Brooks was laid off. This turned out to be a major career move in disguise. Instead of checking out the want ads Brooks went to a Hollywood party. Irresponsible, you say? Not this time. He met the aforementioned Burns, found out he produced My Mother the Car, and began pitching him story ideas. That a man who once wrote for Walter Cronkite could come up with stories about a talking car is a testament to Brooks versatility as a writer. Burns was certainly impressed. He hired Brooks on the spot. It turned out to a be a short term job, but at least he had something to put on his resume, a resume that now stressed entertainment over news.
After writing episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, and That Girl, Brooks was asked by producer Gene Reynolds to create a series about an American high school. Brooks did just that and showed the pilot script to Burns, who again was impressed, impressed enough, in fact, that he asked if he could write for this new series, which was less a sitcom and more a comedy-drama. Burns ended up not only writing but also became a producer for the new series as well. Room 222 was a high-quality show that didn't always get high-quality ratings. Winning many Emmys, it kind of limped along for a few years before it was finally cancelled after four seasons, with just enough reruns to assure a decent afterlife in syndication. And it did have one important fan...
...Grant L Tinker, NBC's West Coast head of programming throughout part of the 1960s, where he helped develop the hit shows The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy, before moving to Universal Studios, where he developed another hit, Marcus Welby M.D. Just as significant, at least as far as I'm concerned, he wed Mary Tyler Moore in 1962. As the 1970s inched closer, Moore's film career hadn't been much to speak of, but she was still sought after by the TV networks. Tinker knew that, so he and the missus...
...formed their own production company.
In case you didn't get the joke.
As I said, Tinker liked Room 222 and lured two of that show's writer-producers, the aforementioned Burns and Brooks, away to create a new show for his wife.
Mary Richards, so exquisitely brought to life by Ms. Moore, is said to have been TV's first feminist. I don't want to take anything away from that, but I feel it should be pointed out that feminism is something that the Mary character falls into rather than seeks out. She was never as outspoken about it as her landlady and married friend Phyllis (who, in reality, was less independent than Mary.) You could say Mary Richards led by example, but as this was a sitcom and not a political tract, it was, by necessity, an often hilarious example.
Her professional life. After Mary Richards arrives in Minneapolis, she applies for a job as a secretary at TV station WJM (located in the building above) but, as that position is already filled, is instead hired as an associate producer. Is it really that easy to become an associate producer, especially if one has no experience? Well, WJM was portrayed as a rather ramshackle operation--ramshackle to everyone but Mary, to whom it was an opportunity of a lifetime. This despite being told she's making less money than the station's secretaries, even though the duties are the same. Mary doesn't care just then, but complains later on when she finds out that the male who had the job before her was making more money. Her boss explains that the man was raising a family, an explanation that satisfies Mary until she takes a moment to think about it. As she tells her boss, if pay is based on a family's financial needs, than a man raising three children should get paid more than a man raising just two, and so on. Good rebuttal, but the boss STILL refuses her a raise (though he gives in later on in the episode.) Mary regularly battles with her boss throughout the course of the series, and wins more often than she loses. If that's all you knew about her, you might say she's the perfect feminist heroine. Except that these battles aren't fought in the midst of any war Mary may have declared on her boss, but instead are mere skirmishes during an otherwise deferential peace. This is no phony or calculated deference, either. I mean, jeez, the woman can't even bring herself to call her boss by his first name, even though it would please him greatly (and possibly make those battles end much sooner) if she did.
"I've been around--well, all right, I might not have been around, but I've been nearby."
A paradoxical, complicated woman, this Mary Richards. Perhaps the most complex character ever to grace a sitcom. How to explain her? It can be tricky psychoanalyzing a fictional character, especially a fictional television character, where any contradiction can be explained away as a revolving door of TV writers making things up as they go along. But I don't think that's the case here. After all, there's plenty of passive-aggressive types in the non-fictional world we all inhabit. They didn't all spring forth from some sitcom scribe's typewriter. So let me offer you this clue. I opened up this piece with the The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song. Here's one line of that song:
"Well it's you girl, and you should know it."
And what of that motley crew? I once heard Ed Asner say on Larry King that the MTM characters were a bunch of lovable losers, but I think that's kind of harsh. Not the lovable part, but that they were losers. After all, they were all members of the Great American Middle Class (at least up until the series finale.) I think it's more accurate to say they were all insecure. Neurotic, even. However, unlike the neurotics Woody Allen usually plays, they tried mightily to hide their neurosis. It's when they couldn't that the laughs ensued.
Lou Grant comes across as a basically self-assured individual, but look again. The series kind danced around the subject, and never said so for certain, but Lou may have been--and I don't use this term lightly--an alcoholic. He keeps a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer, and offers Mary a drink during her job interview. Now, this was back in 1970. It may just be there was more drinking going on in the workplace back then. Except that, on the very same day Lou hires Mary, he later shows up at her apartment drunk! Quite a debut for a sitcom character, wouldn't you say? True, his drinking never reaches such bizarre proportions again, but it keeps reasserting itself throughout the run of the series. When he's (temporarily, as it turns out) promoted upstairs, his swanky office actually comes equipped with a liquor cabinet. But it's all the way across the room, not close enough for Lou, and as his new desk, essentially a glass table, lacks a drawer, he uses the wastepaper basket to store his bottle instead! In another episode Lou gets drunk before going on the air to report the news during a TV strike, but ends up giving a flawless performance, so at least he's a functional alcoholic. In interviews he gave after the series had ended, Asner occasionally bemoaned having played a drunk for laughs. But at least it was a different kind of drunk than Dean Martin, Foster Brooks, or Otis on The Andy Griffith Show. Like that other top-rated 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dealt with serious topics from time to time, but in a less sensationalist manner. Or to put it this way, on Family a serious topic was depicted as a disruption of the ordinary, whereas on TMTMS the serious topic didn't disrupt so much as quietly, almost gently, subvert the ordinary. So it was with Lou's drinking. But why was he like that? His marriage breaks up halfway through the show's run, but alcohol doesn't seem to be the cause of the problem. Rather, wife Edie (Priscilla Morrill), in the parlance of the times, wants to 'find herself'. And anyway, even back when Lou mistakenly thought his marriage was a happy one, he drinks to excess. In fact, in that episode where he shows up at Mary's place drunk, he writes a love letter to his wife! The arc of Lou's journalistic career, which is gradually revealed throughout the years, might have something to do with it. Lou was once an up-and-coming reporter who once worked alongside Walter Cronkite when they were both war correspondents during World War II. But Cronkite ended up at CBS, Lou at WJM. I suspect disappointment that his once-promising career had lost its promise was behind his drinking. Lou eventually goes back to print journalism, but that's another TV show.
"Allow me to introduce myself, I'm another person in the room."
I said earlier that, based on a single episode, that Mary Richards may have had a problem with her mother, that she found her kind of cloying. But as with everything with her character, it may have been a matter of perception. Her perception. The mother actually seemed like a perfectly nice woman, naturally concerned about her daughter, but not overly so (in fact, we find out at the end of the episode that its the father that's the worrier.) Rhoda Morgenstern also had a problem with her mother, also found her clothing, except in this case it's not mere perception but a cold, hard fact. To give you an idea just how meddlesome Ida Morgenstern is, we see far more of her than Mary's mom, even though the latter lives in the same state as her daughter, whereas Ida lives a half a continent away in New York City! The overbearing Jewish mother was already a well-worn comic stereotype in 1970, but the great comedy thespian Nancy Walker made is seem like we were being introduced to such a character for the very first time. Walker had hit it big on Broadway back in the 1940s (she played the female taxi driver in the original stage production of On the Town; Betty Garrett acted the part in the 1949 movie.) As is often strangely the case with Broadway stars, she had a more minimal presence in motion pictures. By 1970, her heyday seemed to have been long in the past, but thanks in part to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the 48-year old Walker became a household name, a feat more easily accomplished on TV than in the theater.
"With councilmen, municipal judges and sewer bonds I vote the straight eeny-meeny-miney-moe ticket."
The woman pictured above, Miss Chicago, competed in but did not win the 1946 Miss America pageant, proving those pageants mean squat as far as future career prospects go. Read on:
"It's just an...involuntary shudder"
Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) Mary Richard's landlady and apparently an old friend, though I can't track down how they met. I do know that they already knew each by the time Mary agrees to rent an apartment from her. Phyllis is a piece of work--opinionated, defensive, self-absorbed, often obnoxious, and completely unaware that she's anything but perfect. She's also quite humorless, which of course makes her funny as hell. However far back she go with Mary, Phyllis still has to compete with Rhoda for the title of Best Friend, and isn't any luckier than Leachman was in Atlantic City back in 1946, but it's great fun watching her try. One drawback (other than self-absorption, obnoxiousness, etc.) is that she just couldn't spend as much time in Mary' apartment as she had a dermatologist husband (the unseen Lars) and a precocious daughter, Bess (Lisa Gerritsen.) On top of everything else, Phyllis saw herself as a progressive parent and insisted her daughter call her by her first name, though you got the feeling Bess might have preferred Mary or even Rhoda as a mother. As I said earlier, Phyllis was an outspoken feminist, but when her husband dies, leaving her penniless, she actually has to go out and get a job (as well as a spinoff series, which took place in San Francisco)
Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) If Phyllis Lindstrom lived vicariously through the type of modern woman she read about in the pages of Ms. magazine, than Sue Ann lived vicariously through Hints from Heloise. She was the anti-Gloria Steinem. At least that's what she wanted everyone to think. Sue Ann is actually a one-woman object lesson in not believing everything you see on TV. Hosting a show on WJM titled The Happy Homeworker, in which she cheerfully dispensed goofy household tips (such as using dead goldfish as fertilizer for houseplants) to stay-at-home wives, an already vanishing species in the 1970s. Sue Ann herself did not belong to that species as she was unmarried and obviously a career woman. When the TV camera was turned off she turned into a sharp-tongued, nymphomaniac, vicariously living her non-professional life through a combination of Cosmopolitan and Winning Through Intimidation. She almost steals Lars away from Phyllis (the latter's suspicions are raised when she realizes how clean her husband's clothes are lately) and actually gets a drunk Lou Grant to bed her! It was rather difficult to believe that Mary Richards would ever let this hilariously sweet-talking ("dear, sweet naive Mary"), duplicitous bitch become part of her inner circle even if she did work right down the hall, and the sitcom eventually had to move Sue Ann into the newsroom itself (after The Happy Homemaker was canceled) to justify her weekly presence, but why carp? I'll happily accept a suspension of reality if I know a good laugh will come out of it. Sue Ann makes her debut in Season 4, and may have just been meant as a one-shot character, but then you saw her again a few episodes later, and again a few episodes after that. Her visibility increased greatly once Rhoda and Phyllis moved out of town. And that increased visibility was a huge career boost for Betty White. She had been a minor celebrity going back to the early days of television, and by 1973 was probably best known for co-hosting the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (with Lorne Greene.) She really wasn't know then for her comic abilities. Forty years or so later it's hard to remember there was a time when she was anything but funny.
"I really miss Phyllis. Of course, I never knew her very well. Maybe that helps."
Georgette Franklin, later Georgette Baxter (Georgia Engels) Rhoda's co-worker and friend who becomes Mary Richard's friend as well. In fact, after Rhoda moves back to New York (and to her own sitcom) Georgette more-or-less replaces her as Mary's confidante, albeit a much more docile confidante. With her vacant stare and soft, childlike voice, it would be tempting to write Georgette off as just another dumb blonde, except I can't remember her ever saying or doing anything dumb. Well, there IS her choice of a soulmate...
"This just in. You've got something between your teeth."
Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) The pompous, gaffe-prone, woefully unprepared anchorman of WJM-TV's Six O'Clock News. Ted is such a broadly comic, over-the-top character, he sometimes seems like he'd be a better fit on Gilligan's Island than the more sophisticated Mary Tyler Moore Show. But maybe that's the point. Ted is a farcical bomb dropped in the midst of all the nuanced storytelling. His mere presence sometimes forces the other characters to adopt a more broadly comic attitude, merely as a way of dealing with him, such as when Mary tells him to shut up on the air. But what makes him tick? Is he merely a comedy contrivance, a soulless punchline who barely needs a setup? Has he no interior life? Or is his head so far up his ass it's the exterior life he's lacking? Is he not a character but a caricature? A mere cartoon? Sure, he's played by a flesh-and-blood actor, but the same can be said of Moe, Larry and Curly. Except that Ted is not nearly as invulnerable as those three, not physically (he has a heart attack late in the series run) but, more importantly, not psychologically. As time goes on, another, more realistic, but no less funny Ted Baxter emerges, one wracked with insecurities, who refuses ever to go on vacation for fear he might be replaced, who believes everytime he's called into Lou's office he might be fired. So great is his respect for his boss, that one wonderful episode has Ted happily turning down a job as a game show host when Lou, under his breath, lets slip an emotional "don't go." Or how about when Gordy (John Amos), the station's weatherman in the early years, returns to Minneapolis a nationally-known TV personality, to Ted's chagrin? You can't help but feel for the latter, malapropisms and all. Frankly, I think Ted's over-the-top, broad comedy is really nothing more than a coping mechanism. And in the end , maybe that proves he does belong more on The Mary Tyler Moore Show than Gilligan's Island. Those seven castaways were never insecure about anything (or else why did think they were about to get off that island at the beginning of nearly every episode?) Finally, Ted's courtship and eventual marriage to Georgette does a great deal to humanize him. Amazingly, without dehumanizing her in the process.
When Mary met Lou.
That's the most famous part of the job interview, what I found that was nearly as funny was this exchange that occurred a few minutes earlier:
Lou: What religion are you?
Mary: Mr. Grant, I don't quite know how to say this, but you're not allowed to ask that when someone's applying for a job. It's against the law.
Lou: Wanna call a cop?
Lou: Good. Would you think I was violating your civil rights if I asked if you're married?
Mary has a bad day--and see how it ends!
I told you before about all the musical numbers on The Dick Van Dyke Show and how it was a chance to see Moore sing. Well, she did once on her other hit show, too, though it's arguably not quite the same thing.
Lou's turn to sing.
Georgette outdoes both of them.
One final musical number--along with a knock-knock joke!
Rhoda consoles Lou, after he ruins Mary's parties (not that it wouldn't have been ruined anyway; she seemed to have problems in that area.)
Mary and Rhoda are not forgotten. Here's a tribute to the two I found on You Tube.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a foreign film.
Move over, Robert Frost. Sue Ann waxes poetic about the weather.
Georgette tries to fill in for Rhoda.
Edie gets married, but it's really just an excuse on my part to show yet another Mary and Lou clip. Moore and Asner just worked so well together.
Mary delivers an editorial about the perils of overpopulation.
Here's how the above episode ends:
TED: You're giving her a fifty dollar raise after she told me to shut up on the air?
LOU: It's all I can afford, Ted.
When Ted met Walter.
As I said earlier, woefully unprepared.
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns
Quick, send in the clowns...
I've tried to make the point that insecurity was a major theme of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Well, after seven years, the characters finally had a valid reason for all that insecurity. In the series finale, a new station manager takes over and fires everyone but the one character you might think would have the MOST reason to feel insecure: Ted Baxter. But I'm going to skip all that and instead show you the curtain call, which aired only once.
Mary Tyler Moore did a few other things in her career, but I'm going to end it here.
No, wait, I can't quite end it that way.