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THE MTM STORY
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Excerpt: BIOGRAPHY - THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (2002)
The Casting Process:






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"Love Is All Around" - Theme to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (S. Curtis)



   Tinker and Moore - 1970s

BEGINNINGS


     In an interview with People Magazine Tinker would say, “If the networks have so little respect for the audience that we grind out pap and junk, we literally devalue our viewers, and we can't expect them to keep coming back to our programs."  Moore & Tinker and Brooks & Burns were determined for that to not be the case with their new show.  They wanted it to capture the entertaining breeziness of THAT GIRL, the empowering appeal of JULIA, and the social conscience of ROOM 222 all in one.  A tall order.   
 

     Under the agreed upon series title THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Brooks and Burns first pilot draft featured Moore’s “Mary Richards” as a recently divorced and relocated 30 year old starting life anew in Minneapolis as associate producer of the fictitious WJM-TV nightly news broadcast.  CBS chief Mike Dann and his executives were shocked and outraged.  Not at Mary being an associate producer, but at the thought of her being divorced.  This was still before gritty consciousness raising Norman Lear shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, and topics like divorce were still taboo ... especially in comedy.  To the CBS execs there was nothing funny about divorce, and more so they felt audiences would think Moore’s character was divorced from Dick Van Dyke.  This is when the network demanded Brooks and Burns be fired and that MTM proceed with more “experienced” writer/producers.
 

Cloris Leachman as Phyllis (left),
Moore (center), and Valerie Harper as Rhoda (right)


     Moore and Tinker refused.  Their personal money was invested in MTM and they could therefore call the creative shots.  CBS was contractually obligated to give them their 13 episode series run, but because of the couple's refusal to bend to their wishes, they relegated the still-in-the-works show to a “death knell” Tuesday night time slot just after the country comedy variety series HEE-HAW, and opposite TV’s biggest ratings titan at the time, ABC’s THE MOD SQUAD.
 

     Brooks and Burns wanted to quit, but after Moore and Tinker “got their back” by refusing to let them go, they felt their departure would reflect negatively upon the couple.  They stayed and in time made the narrative alteration that Mary’s character would be a woman on the rebound from a recently ended long term live-in relationship.  She could still therefore carry much of the emotional baggage of a divorce, but there would be less public (i.e. network) stigma attached.  







 
  (Left to right) Producer David Davis, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Burns, Joe Rainone and James L. Brooks



     While this particular “flash fire” was extinguished, others smoldered.  In a 2002 interview Cloris Leachman (cast as Mary’s ditzy landlady Phyllis Lindstrom) recalled sitting in a café and overhearing the conversation of two network execs: “She thinks she can (now) have a series just because she was the wife on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW?  Does she think a woman … a wife! … could now have a series that could work”.  Leachman said, “I was shocked at the mindset, … y’know, at the bigotry”.  But that was only the beginning. 

     Leachman’s casting was no problem.  An established character actress most of her adult life, she at the time was most popular from her stint as Timmy’s adoptive mother in season four of television’s immensely popular LASSIE series, and as such was very likable to the public.  The same couldn’t be said for the primary male lead, Mary’s gruff veteran newsman boss Lou Grant - played by Ed Asner.

 

 
Moore with Asner as the gruff but lovable Lou Grant
     
     While all three male leads (including arrogant, dim-witted news anchor Ted Baxter - portrayed by Ted Knight, and acerbic,
wise-cracking news copy writer Murray Slaughter - played by Gavin MacLeod) were better known for careers as cinematic heavies rather than for comedy, the biggest network concern was Asner.  They felt he was too “mean and cruel" in his no-nonsense directness with the other characters, especially in his dealings with Mary.  Once again however, the creative team stuck to their guns and Asner stayed. 

     The final casting coup was the find of then CBS V.P. in Charge of Talent Ethel Winant.  Winant (a major creative force behind the success of CBS’s spy/western series THE WILD WILD WEST) discovered Valerie Harper in a small no-name rented LA theater performance one night and knew immediately she was born to play Mary’s cynical, self-deprecating, New York-born neighbor and eventual best friend Rhoda Morgenstern.  The antithesis of Mary’s soft spoken insecurity, Rhoda would in some respects function as the mouthpiece for Mary’s more demure non verbalized feelings and desires.
 

 


Valerie Harper as the irascible Rhoda   

    
     To say CBS officials had misgivings about the show is an understatement.  They therefore ordered a “live audience” run-through test taping, and the day, June 30th, 1970, came to be known to the cast and crew as “Black Tuesday”.  Under the direction of Jay Sandrich (THE ODD COUPLE, NIGHT COURT, THE COSBY SHOW), the taping took place on one of the hottest California nights of the year, and everything which could possibly go wrong did






     1) - The air conditioning units didn’t work that evening, making the audience uncomfortable and moody

     2) - A bomb threat before the taping forced cast, crew and audience outside for an extended period before the show began; and ...

     3) -
CBS chose this particular night to experiment with a new camera system which, large and noisy, prevented the audience from seeing and hearing much of the performance, hence there were no laughs.

 
 
Legendary TV director Jay Sandrich

    
Even though the evening was a debacle, at the end of the taping Moore, the consummate professional, came onstage and cheerfully thanked the audience for attending before going home and collapsing into a jag of tears and depression.  Undaunted, Brooks, Burns and Sandrich knew they’d given their best, and Tinker continued to back them up, all the way through filming of the series official pilot premiere episode “Love Is All Around” (orig. airdate 9/19/70).  With the exception of a few minor tweeks, including Asner toning down his “gruffness” just a little in the now classic scene where Mary is first hired, the creators made very few changes from the “Black Tuesday” script. 

     It all at first seemed a triumph as the audience (able to see and hear the performances this time around) responded enthusiastically.  When CBS held test screenings of the episode however,  the show rated lower than any other test they'd ever conducted.  Plans were already underway by the network to create a replacement show after Moore and Tinker's 13 episode obligation was fulfilled. 









Filming the Pilot Episode: "Love Is All Around"
Orig. Airdate (9/19/70)






 



GRRRL POWER!, E.R.A. AND CIVIL RIGHTS ... WITH A GRIN   


Fred Sliverman       


     Fortune stepped in when Fred Silverman took over from Mike Dann as CBS programming chief .  Silverman would be responsible for some of the network’s biggest hits of the 1970s including ALL IN THE FAMILY, M*A*S*H,  KOJAK and THE SONNY AND CHER SHOW.  But THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was his first major success.  Having viewed the pilot episode, he loved it, and in the final weeks before it’s debut moved it’s timeslot from the dreaded Tuesday night “graveyard” to prime time Saturday.  The “Love Is All Around” episode kicked off the series on Sept. 19th, 1970, and the initial critical response was mixed, Time Magazine calling it “…a disaster for star Mary Tyler Moore” and The New York Times infamously dissing it’s premise as “… ridiculous”.


     Over the weeks however, it’s ratings steadily climbed, and more surprisingly, the show’s creators began receiving news reports that more and more women were staying home Saturday nights specifically to watch Mary and Rhoda‘s perceptively drawn (if comical) journeys through the mindfield of 70s independent womandom.  In an era long before VCRs, DVRs and Netflix, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was developing a cult following not unlike that which would be enjoyed years by later series like ALLY McBEAL and SEX AND THE CITY. 




    
     Even though the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (in August 1920) made it illegal to deny any woman the right to vote, suffragists leader Alice Paul, knew it alone wouldn’t erase discrimination based on gender.  She therefore introduced the first version of what would eventually become the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) in 1923 wherein, as stated in Section 1, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”.
 

  1972 Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm

     Championed over the years by (among others) the National Women’s Party, President Dwight Eisenhower and leaders such as Paul, Coretta Scott King and Representatives Martha Griffiths and Shirley Chisholm, it wouldn’t be until 1972 that the Amendment would see ratification by both congressional houses before embarking on it’s battle through various state legislatures ... all the while racing an impending seven year ratification deadline. 


     During this time THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW had unintentionally tapped into the national zeitgeist and continued to grow in popularity not only with women, but surprisingly among all demographics who (as with the earlier JULIA) had found an empowering “same-ness” wherein they could personally identify with it’s characters on a gut level. 


John Amos as Gordy  
   
     John Amos (later famous as the patriarchal James Evans on TV’s GOOD TIMES) had a recurring role as Gordy, the news station’s talk show host and only African-American on-air personality.  In one episode a comment on taken-for-granted-every-day racism is broached when ditzy Phyllis first meets Gordy and assumes (in a condescending manner) that he’s the sportscaster.  Other episodes would involve topics such as ageism, diets and self esteem, birth control and anti-Semitism.  And even wise-cracking Murray Slaughter would see a character arc following the breakdown of his marriage followed by a battle with a gambling addiction. 


     All of this was done with a subtle touch however - the shows themselves being so funny, one hardly realized the topics covered were so serious.  In the third season episode “Just Around the Corner” (10/28/72) Mary’s parents (played by popular character actors Bill Quinn and Nanette Fabray), having attempted to reach their daughter by phone all evening, arrive unannounced at her apartment the morning after she’s obviously spent the night “hooking up” with a male friend.  Attempting to get their normally demure child to “spill the beans“ as usual, Mary surprises them … and herself … by standing her ground, and for one of the first times in her life “cutting the umbilical” -  in essence telling her parents that as a 30-something year old adult it’s high time they stopped interrogating her about her personal affairs. 


     Regardless of age, every viewer (male or female) related to this bit of (lovingly intended) parental intrusion, and for the next week "Just Around the Corner" was the hot water-cooler topic of conversation.  Far be it for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW's creators to take their "soap box" too seriously though.  In another episode when her parents visit again, Mary’s mother calls out from another room “Don’t forget to take your pill!", to which both daughter and father (each thinking they‘re the one being addressed) at the same time shout back “I will!”.
















  Dancer / Singer / Actress Nanete Fabray as Dottie Richards

    
      After only one season THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW received eight Emmy nominations (taking home statues for Ed Asner, Valerie Harper and Brooks & Burns), and even the press (many of whom had initially panned the show) was now singing it’s praises.  One of the most sterling essays to this effect was John Leonard’s December 1970 LIFE MAGAZINE article “The Subversive Mary Tyler Moore” wherein he’d comment how usually in the TV world:
  

     “If women have a profession, it’s usually nursing, where they minister to men (… like the show JULIA). If they are superior to men, it’s because they have magical powers (BEWITCHED, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, THE FLYING NUN).  If they are over 30 years old, they’ve got to be widows, almost always with children, so that they can’t run around enjoying themselves like real people (THE BRADY BUNCH, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY). And they’re guaranteed to be helpless once very fifteen minutes.”  He’d  continue … “If the THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (however) ever goes into weekday reruns, vampirized homemakers may get their consciousness raised to the point where they will refuse to leave their brains in the sugar canister any longer”.








REEL WORLD /
REAL WORLD


    
     One of the most important aspects to even the most empowered of characters is vulnerability, for it is here the audience can inject their own fears, confusion and questions in relation to the world into the person they’d like to be.  Even the best action heroes are the ones who don’t always have things figured out; who make mistakes, stumble along the way and occasionally allow personal demons to cloud the issue at hand before making a course correction and saving the day in the final act.  


     Moore, Tinker, Brooks & Burns were careful to never loose sight of this narrative truth.  And while THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW’s  “Mary Richards” was now lauded in TV GUIDE as “… a 33 year old unmarried, un-worried, liberated woman’s ideal”, the show’s creators, especially Moore herself, never wanted her to be too sure of things.  This way the audience could continue to project themselves (their own answers and opinions on a particular conflict or question) onto the show’s topics rather than have the stories “spoon-feed” them how they should be feeling and thinking. 


     Moore reflected on this in 2002, recalling the Season 3 opening episode “The Good Time News” (9/16/72), wherein (within the "A" or "primary"story) of WJM-TV being forced because of low ratings to infuse their reports with a more "positive happy spin", Mary (in the first five minutes of the "B" or "secondary" story) confronts boss Lou Grant as to why she’s being paid less than a man who once did the same job as she ... and did it not nearly as well.  





Filming "The Good Time News"
Orig. Airdate (9/16/72)

 



     Once again, another series episode became water-cooler chat talk.  That talk would lead to another. 



     Amazingly much of the social significance the show was having on the public was unknown to the cast and crew at the time.  It was not however lost upon others

     In any creative endeavor the primary concern of the artists involved is “how do we make the characters as interesting and relate-able as possible?”, and the answer is usually found in what’s happening outside in the street at the present moment.  As far as how effectively MARY TYLER MOORE’s crew was tapping into these “street” concerns never occurred to most of them until Gloria Steinam surprisingly approached the show for a bit of political assistance.  Moore recalled:

     “Gloria Steinam got in touch with me and asked if I would join her in going to Washington.  We had just about lost the ERA Amendment.  She said ’I don’t think there’s any hope, but it might make a difference if you come because (then Democratic House Majority Whip) Tip O’Neill has said he’ll sit down and talk with us if you’re there‘”.

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