Those who grew up watching the smart, independent and perky Mary Richards always knew she would “make it after all.” There are, however, the younger folks who have only seen the reruns (it aired from 1970-77), and thus probably don’t realize just how groundbreaking The Mary Tyler Moore Show really was. Sure, some of the series’ scenarios seem dated by today’s standards.
But, the show’s portrayal of how women – single women in particular – were treated in the workplace and by society, in general, was very representative of the time. Our dear Mary Tyler Moore passed away in 2017, at 80 years old. Thanks to Moore, future female TV stars had an easier time getting the rather “unconventional” female characters the spotlight they deserved on the small screen. That said, here’s to Moore and the TV show that made it all possible.
This is everything you need to know about The Mary Tyler Moore Show…
All Thanks to the Dick Van Dyke Show
Once The Dick Van Dyke Show ended back in 1966, Mary Tyler Moore was ready to make a leap into films. She signed a contract with Universal Pictures and quickly starred in three features, one after the other. One of the three (Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Julie Andrews) earned critical praise and did well at the box office.
With her performance value noticeably fading, Moore leaped at the chance to reunite with her old pal and co-star in 1969. She agreed to be on the CBS variety special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. Writers Sam Denoff and Bill Persky were inspired by a minor complaint that Van Dyke’s wife, Marjorie, once made — that when she was in public with her husband, she would hear comments about him “cheating” on Laura (Moore).
No Divorcées on TV, Please
It was after the show’s success that CBS offered Moore a half-hour slot with a guarantee of 24 episodes. When the creative team behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show was brainstorming the original concept, they pictured Mary Richards as a recently divorced 30-something who moved to a new apartment and needed a job after her husband left her.
But that apparently posed some problems. CBS network researchers at the time warned the show’s co-creator Allan Burns that there were four things viewers would never accept watching in their living rooms and would basically spell out an early death for a TV show: New Yorkers, Jews, divorced women, and men with mustaches. (Again, that’s what they thought based on their research.)
Despite the Warnings…
Despite the prejudiced warning, Burns and his staff decided to keep their Jewish New York-transplant Rhoda character (Valerie Harper). Yes, at first, she tested poorly with audiences, but she softened up after a few episodes (you’ll see why soon). They did scratch the divorcée angle, however, after preview audiences apparently couldn’t distinguish between her new character and her Laura Petrie character from The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Audiences openly hated Mary for leaving such a nice guy like Dick Van Dyke. Instead, the writers turned Mary into a woman who recently ended a two-year engagement and was looking to start a new life in her own apartment, relying on only herself – a new concept for a leading lady on TV.
The Story Behind MTM’s Cat
Grant Tinker (Moore’s husband) had the idea to name their new production company MTM Enterprises. Moore wasn’t opposed to it – after all, she had her name in it. And if it reminds you of MGM, it’s only natural. The similarity didn’t go unnoticed, either. During an early staff meeting, someone suggested that considering how MTM was a small company, it might be cute to have a kitten meow – you know, similar to the MGM lion.
The staff agreed, and so one of them visited an animal shelter in Minneapolis and found several orange kittens (they wanted a cat that had colors similar to a lion). They chose the cat with the loudest “meow.” The kitten’s name was Mimsie, and she ended up appearing in many different forms in the production tags of MTM shows. A crew member later adopted her and took her to San Bernardino, where Mimsie lived until the ripe old age of 20.
First Impressions Go a Long Way
MTM made the unusual decision to perform the debut episode twice. First, they invited a studio audience to see the dress rehearsal. They had cameras recording it so the cast and production could watch and evaluate it before the pilot’s actual filming a few days later. The actors saw that they weren’t getting the laughs they were expecting.
A post-show audience poll revealed that they hated Rhoda’s character, saying she was too mean to the sweet Mary in the episode’s opening scene. It turns out that that first impression left a bitter taste in their mouths throughout the rest of the episode. It wasn’t what the production wanted at all…
A Frantic Move to Save the Pilot
While the writers frantically tried to find a way to fix their show without having to undergo a major overhaul, script supervisor Marjorie Mullen thought of something. She decided to have the show open with Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and her daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen), showing Mary her new apartment.
They find “that dumb, awful Rhoda” (as Phyllis referred to her) out on the balcony, washing the windows since she figured it was going to be her apartment. Mullen’s idea was that this would give Bess an extra line that wasn’t originally in the script: “Aunt Rhoda’s really a lot of fun! Mom hates her… ” In the end, the change worked – if a little girl thought Rhoda was cool, the audience would ease up on her. By the time Friday’s taping came along, the laughs came in all the right places.
Gavin MacLeod Was Almost Cast as Lou Grant
By the age of 18, Allan George See (Gavin MacLeod’s original name) started losing his hair. It was during his time studying drama at New York’s Ithaca College. When he graduated, he was already pretty much bald, which, as you can imagine, only limited his roles as an actor. He then changed his name to Gavin MacLeod and managed to land a fairly steady career playing “heavies,” thanks to his lack of hair and bulky physique.
MTM co-founder Grant Tinker invited MacLeod to audition for the part of Lou Grant. But after the audition, he asked him to read for the role of Murray Slaughter, Mary’s co-worker. He believed he could bring more to the likable Murray character than the grumpy Lou. The producers agreed, especially after Ed Asner tried out for the role of Mary’s boss.
Bye Cassidy, Hello Knight
The show’s producers had Jack Cassidy in mind when they came up with the character of Ted Baxter. Cassidy turned them down, though, having just played a pretty-boy actor on He & She. He didn’t want to get typecast as a sort of buffoon. And so, the role went to Ted Knight instead.
Only after The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a success did Cassidy change his mind. He ended up appearing on the show as Ted’s egotistical brother Hal in the episode titled Cover Boy. As for Ted Knight, there’s a bit of a story of how he came to be cast on the show, and it proved to be something that changed his life…
Getting the Right One to Play Ted
It all started when Lyle Waggoner was considered as the producers’ second choice for the role of the anchorman. But he was already on The Carol Burnett Show and said he had no desire to leave a successful show for one that wasn’t a surefire hit. John Aniston’s (Jennifer Aniston’s father) read for the part of Ted and was even called back twice.
The producers, however, weren’t convinced that he was “the one.” Producer Dave Davis happened to see Knight performing one night in a local production of the Broadway comedy You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. Davis was impressed and reported to the rest of the MTM team that Knight was simply hilarious and should definitely read for the role of Ted Baxter.
A Memorable Audition
Sure, the silver-haired Knight was nowhere near what a typical hunky heartthrob looked like – the type they originally had in mind – but Knight simply won them over. He showed up to the audition wearing this anchorman-style blue blazer that he bought from a thrift store with his rent money.
The suit, his booming voice, and his comedic chops all impressed the producers. During his brief reading, he brought layers to the anchorman character (like being arrogant on the outside, yet secretly vulnerable and human on the inside) that really left the producers captivated. It even inspired some newsroom story ideas for the show. He was cast on the show, but it turned out to be bittersweet.
He Hated Being Confused With Ted
Midway through the third season, Knight walked into Allan Burns’ office before rehearsal with tears streaming down his face. Startled, Burns ran out from behind his desk to give the actor a hug and asked him what was wrong. “I can’t do it,” Knight wept. “I can’t play Ted Baxter anymore. Everybody thinks I’m stupid, and I’m not. I’m intelligent and well-read, but everyone treats me like I’m a schmuck.”
Burns heard him out, giving him examples of great comedic actors who also were nothing like the characters they played on TV. Knight eventually calmed down and went out to the stage for rehearsal. That’s when co-creator James L. Brooks walked in and cheerily slapped the actor on the back, jokingly saying, “Ah, Ted, the world’s favorite schmuck.” As the show progressed, Ted got married and earned the occasional “special” episode to remind viewers that he wasn’t just a clown.
The Apartment Was a Hot Spot
For the first five seasons, Mary Richards lived in Apartment D in an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian home with Palladian windows and an iron balcony. A woman named Paula Giese and her husband owned the home at the time. Giese claimed that she was told the series’ exterior shots of her house were going to be used for a documentary, and they would be aired one single time, not for a recurring TV show.
As The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a hit, Giese’s home started to get flooded with visitors day in, day out. They would ring her doorbell to ask if “Mary” was home. There were even tour buses full of fans that would show up on her curb.
Mary Got Evicted
You can see where this is going. Giese and her husband weren’t happy campers. In the spring of 1973, the homeowners learned that MTM producers would be back to film more exterior shots. Although they already had some outdoor shots, the producers wanted more shots of the home for possible future uses in the show’s opening credits.
But Paula, a local political activist, had an idea to deter the producers. What she did was hang a series of “Impeach Nixon” signs on the outside of her house to discourage the cameramen. Of course, her tactic worked, and Mary Richards was “evicted” from her apartment. She then moved to a new high-rise early on in season six.
Valerie Harper Was Considered Too Attractive
The character of Rhoda, the originally hated and later appreciated character, was Mary’s neighbor and eventual best friend. In the original script, Rhoda was described as “a self-made loser — overweight, not good with hair and make-up, and self-deprecating.” Ouch. Not the nicest of descriptions, that’s for sure. Well, out of all the actresses who auditioned for the role, Valerie Harper was their hands-down favorite.
But there was just one problem: she was good looking – not fitting that unflattering original description. So, the producers asked her to “frump herself up a bit” when she came back for her second reading. She did, but she was still too pretty. They ended up doing what they did what with other characters like Ted Baxter; they rethought the character to fit the actor.
Bye, Bye Rhoda
The producers made Rhoda the type of woman who didn’t think she was beautiful and who regularly put herself down. Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern for 92 episodes, winning an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But nothing lasts forever, and Harper eventually left the show. The thing is, the men in the cast weren’t too upset to see her go. Rhoda eventually became a popular enough character to get her own spin-off show.
The “boys” on the show were actually happy when they heard she was leaving. Why? It was against Harper herself – it was just that when she was on the show, many of the episodes focused on “the girls,” and so the action always took place at Mary’s apartment – away from the newsroom. The guys were thus happy to get more screen time with Rhoda gone.
Her spin-off lasted for four years, by the way, from 1974-1978.
The First American Show to…
The Mary Tyler Moore Show happened to be the first US network series to break character and show a curtain call. After a successful seven-year run, Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore decided to call it quits and end their show – all while it was still getting strong ratings – rather than continue on, risking a drop in quality and getting canceled.
It was actually one of the rare series finales that let the characters bid farewell to each other in the context of the show. There was also another “first”: Moore introduced each cast member to the audience for a final curtain call, right before the end credits rolled. It was yet another way the show made its mark in history.
A Famous Episode Had Everyone in Stitches
The episode called Chuckles Bites the Dust became one of the show’s most famous episodes. It was about a clown who had hosted the WJM children’s hour. After Mr. Chuckles passed on the show, every time “Mr. Fi-Fo” was mentioned, for some reason, Mary Tyler Moore kept cracking up. You see, Mary was supposed to feel sad and mournful while the rest of the newsroom cracked jokes about his unusual demise.
But during every rehearsal, she couldn’t stop laughing. She later described that her cheeks were sore from biting them so hard as she tried to stop cracking up. The character was actually played by three different actors during the show before he was killed off. Mr. Chuckles was talked about on the show more than he was actually onscreen.
The Iconic Hat Toss Opening
Remember the opening of the sitcom? Well, at the end of the sequence, Mary turns around to throw her blue beret up into the air. You might have to see it again, but you’ll notice the woman in the background, Hazel Frederick, was really shopping on the streets of Minneapolis as they were shooting that scene.
Frederick’s identity was unknown for many years, but she is always remembered for her double-take in bewilderment when she saw Moore toss her hat into the air. She eventually showed up at a book signing of Moore’s memoir, After All, when it came out. In front of a crowd of 5,000 people, Moore brought Frederick on stage and introduced her as her “co-star,” which was sweet.
Whose Wife Was on the Show?
In 1976, due to the success of the show and what it had done for women’s rights, the President’s wife, Betty Ford, made a guest appearance. In a strange coincidence, much, later on, Moore checked herself into the Betty Ford clinic (for a drinking problem). It’s something she talks openly about in her memoir and in interviews.
Moore was diagnosed with diabetes early on in the show. Before the second season even came on air, Moore received a potentially life-threatening diagnosis of Type I Diabetes. In her 2009 book, Growing Up Again, Moore explained what it was like to live with the condition. In her later years, Moore lost much of her sight due to nerve damage.
Starting a Fad
Moore was the first to wear the soon-to-be fashionable capri pants on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She insisted that she be allowed to wear them in every episode of the show. As you know, back then, women were expected to wear only dresses. Moore, however, didn’t have any desire to conform. She even sparked a capri pants phenomenon across the country.
Fun fact: Moore got her big break in a Hotpoint commercial. She was a mascot for the Hotpoint home appliance company and danced as “Happy Hotpoint” in a commercial in 1956. She was only 17 at the time and wore an all-in-one gray leotard and corset. In the cheesy ad, she popped out of an oven and said, “Hi! Harriet, Aren’t you glad you bought a Hotpoint?”
Casting a Shadow
Since The Mary Tyler Moore Show was such a major success, many of Moore’s future roles paled in comparison. Her Mary Richards character was so loved that Moore found it hard to shake off the persona. By 1980, though, her dramatic roles started getting recognized, beginning with her intense role in Ordinary People (which will be explained soon).
The character of Mary Richards was criticized by many feminist activists, including Gloria Steinem. Steinem came down hard on Mary for not standing up for herself in the show. The character was also slammed for being too timid in her fight for equal pay. These activists also pointed out that Mary was the only one to call her boss “Mr. Grant,” and, furthermore, the theme song referenced a “girl” – not a woman.
Moore Went Against Type
Moore loved her standout roles on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But, in her later years, she also like to go against her typical character type. She even got a kick out of shocking people with her antics. One of the best examples was when Moore was the host of Saturday Night Live in 1989.
In her monologue, which became infamous, she said the word “penis.” She was only making a reference to the week prior when host Matthew Broderick was in a skit and said the word 28 times. Most people were truly amused to hear her say the word twice – it was a sight to see!
Spin-Offs and Reunions
The Mary Tyler Moore Show created three spin-off series, one of which we spoke of already – the sitcom Rhoda (1974–78). The other two were Phyllis (1975–77) and the hour-long drama Lou Grant (1977–82). Then, in 2000, Moore and Harper revisited their roles in a two-hour ABC made-for-TV special called Mary and Rhoda.
There were also two retrospective specials by CBS, Mary Tyler Moore: The 20th Anniversary Show (1991) and The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion (2002). In 2008, the surviving cast members reunited on The Oprah Winfrey Show to reminisce about their time together. Winfrey, who was a longtime admirer of Moore and the show itself, had her crew recreate the sets of the newsroom and Mary’s apartment for the reunion.
In Popular Culture
The show was popular even after its final episode in 1977. A number of songs, films, and TV programs reference or parody the characters and events from the show, including The Simpsons. Parodies, of course, were done on Saturday Night Live as well as MadTV and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The show was also mentioned in film. In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Burgundy’s dog, Baxter, is a reference to the character of Ted Baxter and the head of the newsroom staff is Ed, honoring Ed Asner. In Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, the characters argue with each other: “I’m the Mary, and you’re the Rhoda.”
RIP Mary Tyler Moore
Other than her two major sitcom characters, Moore was known for her roles in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and 1980’s Ordinary People, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. According to The New York Times, Moore’s performances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show “helped define a new vision of American womanhood,” challenging gender stereotypes and norms.
The Guardian said Moore’s “outwardly bubbly personality and trademark broad, toothy smile disguised an inner fragility that appealed to an audience facing the new trials of modern-day existence.” For those who don’t know, she was also an advocate for animal rights and diabetes prevention.
RIP Valerie Harper
Valerie Harper died in 2019 at the age of 80. She had revealed to People magazine back in 2013 that she had developed leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, which is cancer cells in her brain. She was given a matter of months to live, yet amazingly, seven months later, she danced on Dancing With the Stars.
Before that diagnosis, Harper was diagnosed in 2009 with lung cancer. When she was asked why her character Rhoda was so popular with viewers, Harper said, “They recognized her as real. She had a weight problem, and she was insecure. She was a New Yorker. But she also had this victorious streak. She could be belligerent and she could stand on her own.” Her co-star Ed Asner, who is 90 now, tweeted after her death: “Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon.”
Betty White Is Still Kickin’ It
In 1973, during the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White made a number of appearances as the “man-hungry” Sue Ann Nivens. Her role earned the all-star actress her second and third Emmy Awards. She herself said the role was the highlight of her career. She did, however, describe her character’s image as “icky sweet” – feeling she was the “very definition of feminine passivity.”
In 1975, NBC replaced White as a hostess on the Tournament of Roses Parade broadcast. They said she was too closely identified with their rival network CBS because of her newfound success on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White told People magazine it was difficult for her to watch “someone else do my parade.” Betty White is 98 these days and hopefully will stick around for a while longer.
The Tragic Fate of One Guest Actress
Did you ever see the “green dress” episode called Will Mary Richards Go to Jail? It was pretty controversial at the time. If you see the dress on Mary, it has cutout holes up and down both sides – a lot of skin for primetime television in the ‘70s. Moore herself wasn’t accustomed to showing so much skin. But regardless, the plot of that episode was Mary trying to help her friend, who was out on parole, start a new career in fashion design.
The actress, Barbara Colby, played a prostitute named Sherry. Unfortunately, right after appearing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Colby was involved in a tragic incident. She and her friend were in a parking lot in Venice, California when they got attacked and shot. She died instantly in 1975, at the age of 36.
Tragedy After the End of the Show
In 1980, Moore’s son Richie Meeker accidentally killed himself by a gunshot wound. He was just 24 years old. Meeker was the son of her first husband, Richard Meeker. In her memoir, Moore admitted that she wasn’t there for her son as much as she could and should have been in his childhood years because of her busy career.
Moore was only 18 in 1955 when she had Richie. Richie was a gun collector used to dealing with firearms. His roommate said that it was definitely an accident – he wasn’t suicidal at all. The same year he died, Moore starred in a movie called Ordinary People, playing a woman whose son almost killed himself. She said the reason she took the role was to deal with her real-life tragedy.