Thursday, January 26, 2017

She Had Spunk

I loved Mary Tyler Moore.

I'm old enough to remember when The Mary Tyler Moore show was on the air. I watched it from the start. In fact, I remember checking out the pilot in while my parents were playing bridge in the next room.  They wanted me to turn it down (it was the only TV in the house, so I couldn't watch anywhere else).

At the time, CBS was tossing its rural shows off the air, and turning towards a smarter type of comedy.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the first of that group and the best.  It almost didn't make it.  Moore, a hot star after her work a few years before on The Dick Van Dyke Show, had tried Broadway (a musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany's that closed before it opened) and movies (Thoroughly Modern Millie, What's So Bad About Feeling Good?--which I saw at the cinema--and A Change Of Habit--where she played a nun opposite Elvis as a doctor), but had not quite made it.

She did a special with her old TV husband entitled Dick Van Dyke And The Other Woman, and CBS was impressed enough to offer her a show. She and husband Grant Tinker started MTM Productions and hired James L. Brooks and Allan Burns to create the show--and stuck by them even as CBS had one problem after another. (The writers wanted Mary to be divorced, but the suits said everyone would think she left Dick Van Dyke.) The first run-through in front of an audience died, but after a few small changes, it played beautifully.

It took a while for the show to pick up viewers, and critics, but it became a hit that settled into a long run, from 1970 to 1977, winning more Emmys than any program up to that time.  Mary herself, who'd won two Emmys on DVD, won four for MTM (and would receive yet another in the 1990s).

During its run, CBS developed the Saturday night lineup that included MTM plus All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. TV has never topped that.

Mary went off the air with grace, knowing enough to quit just before things got stale.  The show started a vein of smart comedy that's still with us--either written by the same writers (for instance, James L. Brooks went on to do Taxi and The Simpsons) or inspired by that kind of writing.  Shows that had relatable characters, and situations from real life, even as they managed to be funnier than anything else on the air.

Around then, I also discovered The Dick Van Dyke Show in reruns, which was the greatest sitcom in its time. In fact, you could argue Moore starred in the two greatest comedies ever on TV.

The story is producer Carl Reiner was having trouble casting Dick's wife, but once he found Mary, he knew she was it.  She was young, and hadn't yet shown her comedy chops, but had such chemistry with Van Dyke (though he thought at first she was too young for him), and such style, and was so sexy, that the show expanded her role. Originally it might have focused more on his workplace adventures, but with Mary around, his home life became central.

The show also inspired countless young men to become comedy writers--imagine cracking jokes all day with your pals and getting paid for it, and then coming home to a beautiful home in the suburbs to be with Mary.

After The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she starred in other shows which weren't bad, but never caught fire. (It's hard to match the greatest show of all time.) She also did movies, most notably Ordinary People, for which she got an Oscar nomination.  The story is director Robert Redford saw her walking on the beach by herself, and felt a solitude and even sadness that would work well for the rather closed-off character she'd be playing. 

She also was pretty good years later playing Ben Stiller's Jewish mother in Flirting With Disaster.  Director David O. Russell had hoped to get her and Dick Van Dyke for different roles, but when that fell through he cast Moore against type and she knocked it out of the park.

She also did some Broadway shows, fought for causes, saw tragedy in her life, and so on--sorry if I don't go into it. It's just that I know what I think of when I think of her--the amazing work she did on TV, and the wonderful mix of humor and warmth (a word that usually makes me run, but not in her case) that she embodied.  That's what will live on.

The funny thing is, as much as I loved the show from the start, it was in reruns that I came to cherish it.  It was even funnier than I remembered (maybe because I was just a kid the first time through), and the characters were indelible.

After college I moved to New Jersey, and there was a local station that showed Mary each weeknight from 2 to 3 in the morning.  I always caught it--they showed it in order, and if you missed it there were 168 episodes to cycle through.  It was a weird feeling when they showed the finale, with an experienced Mary saying goodbye to her friends at WJM, and the next day she returned, fresh-faced, moving into a new place in a new city.

Years later I visited Minneapolis, and my friends showed me the house that was used as her apartment's exterior. (I hear the people who lived there got tired of tourists and put political signs in their window like "U.S. out of El Salvador" so the TV show wouldn't shoot anything new.) They also showed me the spot where she tossed her beret in the opening credits, which now has a statue.

The show, by the way, made a statement, but unlike a Norman Lear production didn't have characters screaming their beliefs at each other.  Mary and those around her just lived their lives--making friends, finding jobs, going on dates, etc.  It was about people, not politics.  Mary was unmarried, and in the pilot, leaves her boyfriend, a doctor.  This didn't happen on TV.  Single women in their 30s were rare, and were usually chasing after a man, or had a steady. (MTM tried a steady for a few episodes late in its run.  He was played by Ted Bessell, who had been the steady on MTM's precursor That Girl.  It didn't work.)

And Mary, demure Mary, had sex.  They didn't make a big deal of it, but she was constantly going on dates (often disasters) and was on the Pill.  She also learned to stand up for herself--when she discovered the man who'd held her job earned more, she insisted on a raise.  I almost don't want to bring all this up, because the show was, above all, delightful entertainment, and never hectoring.  The show may have been groundbreaking, socially speaking, but it doesn't even need it.

A lot of woman have said the show inspired them. (Among them, Oprah.) It showed you could have friends and live a fulfilling life without necessarily doing everything the conventional way. Though I guess that message applies to all people.

There's a lot more I could say about Mary, and her work on TV, but I already have blogged about that a fair amount.  So if you want more (or Moore), try here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

16 Comments:

Anonymous John said...

Thank you for this beautiful remembrance.

I recall an interview with Carl Reiner in which he said that the censors on the "Dick Van Dyke Show" were obsessed Mary's "cuppage," which was how much of her posterior could be seen extending behind her when she was shot in profile wearing those black stretch pants.

How times have changed.

2:31 AM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

"Bring back cuppage."

I like it. Professional jargon tells you things.

So, LAGuy, will you have time for that book?

3:08 AM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger New England Guy said...

What became of all the VHS tapes?

7:12 AM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I've still got them. And a VCR to play them, if needed.

8:31 AM, January 26, 2017  
Anonymous Todd said...

Nice tribute. Mary Tyler Moore was one of my first "TV crushes" as a kid, but more because of Laura Petrie ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") than Mary Richards ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). And while, like you, I was a fan of her flagship eponymous sitcom at the time...

...alas, for me, it doesn't hold up as well in re-viewing. Believe me, nobody was as surprised as myself to find this out a few years ago, especially since I still believe "The Dick Van Dyke Show" DOES hold up, despite being arguably even more dated.

Subjectivity, I suppose.

In any case, Ms. Moore remains admirable, not only for her performances, but for building her own empire (MTM Productions) at a time when women in authority in the entertainment business were even more scarce than they are now.

She DID just "make it after all".

8:34 AM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger prokopowicz said...

I'm surprised that there has still been NOTHING written about MTM's sinister side. It's as if we're all still afraid of her, even in the grave. How long until we are free to speak out? Come on, people, she can no longer hurt us!

9:03 AM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger brian said...

I remember watching MTM with my eldest sister Patty babysitting us. It wax probably initially a little high brow for me but I definitely grew to like it as I grew older. And then watched all the re-runs for years. Definitely liked the MTM shows better than the Lear shows. I have not watched MTM or DVD shows in many years now as they are not on any channels that I get. I would be very interested to see how well they would hold up.

10:47 AM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger sheldon said...

Nicely done, Pajama Guy. I know you thought very highly of her.

Dozens of memorable moments.

Undeniably adorable and FUNNY as Laura. She'd steal an entire damned episode with a rousing living room musical number. How about the toe in the bathtub spout? So embarrassing (and provocative).

As Mary, tossing the butcher meat into her shopping cart. Wonderful, lovable performer.

Enough for now.

8:58 PM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger sheldon said...

Cuppage. Cuppage. Cuppage!

9:00 PM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger sheldon said...

Cuppage. Cuppage. Cuppage!

9:00 PM, January 26, 2017  
Blogger New England Guy said...

I was a big fan of the MTM when they were on originally in the 1970s and went on to re-appreciate them watching (with LA Guy taping them on one of the earliest VCRs) at 2 in the morning, after Letterman at school in the mid-80s. It was very frustrating when breaking news or other Local TV specials would screw up the chronology for the tape archive- the technology then was a bit more challenging

MTM was subject to a mini controversy in Pittsburgh when the show predicted the Minnesota Vikings would win Super Bowl IX (by two touchdowns to boot) combined with a slightly snarky voice-over apologia from ("Sorry Pittsburgh fans! But if we're right, you heard it hear it here first." ). Fighting words in a Football Town. Of course this largely went away when the poseur purple people eaters were exposed and crushed by the Steel Curtain in the game for the first of the Steelers' 4 Super Bowl titles in 6 years.

I think she came to Pittsburgh years later for some other purpose and this still came up. I think she said something like "You still remember this?" (My question of course was why Mr. Grant would have bet against his hometown team)

4:27 AM, January 27, 2017  
Blogger New England Guy said...

Also, thanks printing all the links to the prior MTM posts, its keeps me from repeating (which I can see that I have done a lot of). (I still don't like the fantasy episode)

7:38 AM, January 27, 2017  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Growing up one town over from New Rochelle, with my Dad working in the city and my Mom bearing some resemblance to MTM, the Dick Van Dyke Show was pretty revered in our home. I think the show helped my folks decide to move to the Westchester suburbs, where I could pass for little Ritchie. With my Mom passing just a few months ago, MTM's loss is a bit more poignant for me.

I also enjoyed the MTM Show very much, though I did not catch every episode. I need to find a station streaming the whole series and binge. It's odd with all the speculation of Valerie Harper's imminent death from cancer a few years ago, that Mary would be the first to leave us. Meanwhile, Dick Van Dyke is immortal (well, 91).

8:46 AM, January 27, 2017  
Blogger LAGuy said...

In case anyone is wondering, here are some of the people she worked with who are still around: Georgia Engel (68), James L. Brooks (76), John Amos (77), Valerie Harper (77), Allan Burns (81),Gavin MacLeod (85), Ed Asner (87), Cloris Leachman (90), Dick Van Dyke (91), Carl Reiner (94), Betty White (95).

At times like these, I'm reminded of Chuckles' credo: A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.

9:14 AM, January 27, 2017  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

ColumbusGal will have a brandy alexander.

5:22 PM, January 27, 2017  
Blogger LAGuy said...

It's funny--after she died that was one of the first lines I thought of.

10:01 PM, January 27, 2017  

Post a Comment

<< Home

web page hit counter