Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic

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9781451659221: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
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"Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's deft weave of social history and sharp entertainment reporting explains how [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] made the world safe for Lena Dunham" (Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls)—the making of a classic and groundbreaking TV show, as experienced by its producers, writers, and cast.

When writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns dreamed up an edgy show about a divorced woman with a career, the CBS executives they pitched replied: “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series’ lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”

Forty years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the most beloved and recognizable television shows of all time. It was an inspiration to a generation of women who wanted to have it all in an era when everything seemed possible.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted tells the stories behind the making of this popular classic, introducing the groundbreaking female writers who lent real-life stories to their TV scripts; the men who created the indelible characters; the lone woman network executive who cast the legendary ensemble—and advocated for this provocative show—and the colorful cast of actors who made it all work. James L. Brooks, Grant Tinker, Allan Burns, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Gavin MacLeod, Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel—they all came together to make a show that changed women’s lives and television itself. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is the tale of how they did it.

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About the Author:

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Sex and the City and Us, Seinfeldia, and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She writes about pop culture for several publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York’s Vulture, BBC Culture, Entertainment Weekly, and others. She grew up in Homer Glen, Illinois, and now lives in New York City. Visit her online at JenniferKArmstrong.com. 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted one

one

one

one

one

the comeback


(1961–70)

There is a certain trajectory your life takes when you create a classic book or movie, song or television show. It’s a path followed by all those who accomplish this rare feat, and yet they never know they’re on it at the time. And thus they never know if the vision they’re fighting for is valid, much less great. They don’t know of the accolades, or the difficulties, that are to come. They don’t know how hard it will be to move on from such a rarefied experience, nor how hard it will be to duplicate it, but they will try, because, let’s face it, they won’t have much choice. Most of them will find out that comebacks are hard to come by. Then they will, if they are lucky, come to accept that even one classic in one’s life is quite enough, and they will sit back and enjoy all the glory that gives them before their time is through.

It is not, all in all, a bad life. But it’s not as easy as it looks, either.

Jim Brooks was on his way to such a fate, though he never would have guessed it, when he was spending his days writing copy for CBS News in New York—reports on the Bay of Pigs, Andy Warhol, Beatlemania, anything and everything that came through on the clanging wire service machines.

It was 1961, and some form of network news had been a standard part of American life for nearly forty years, since the days of radio. Now television had taken over the country, but it was only just hitting its stride. News was at the forefront of every development in television: The first national live television broadcast in the United States was President Harry Truman’s 1951 speech in San Francisco at the conference for the Treaty of Peace with Japan. A then–cutting-edge microwave relay system allowed viewers in local markets across the country to hear the president’s words at the same time, united, as a nation. Two months later, commercial television had its first live national broadcast with CBS’s See It Now, a newsmagazine series that opened with a split screen of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge—look! Both coasts! See it now! As the 1960s began and Brooks got hired at CBS, more developments in technology allowed the news to be almost up-to-the-minute when it aired. He had timed his stumble into the business well.

The job required a lot from a guy without a news background, without even a college diploma—Brooks had dropped out of New York University. Now twenty-one, he had lucked into the gig with help from a friend of his sister. The job was exhausting, but he found refuge in watching television when he got home. Not the news—no more news, please—but comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show in particular. While I Love Lucy had perfected the sitcom, Dick Van Dyke made it more realistic, wringing its comedy not from far-fetched shenanigans but from everyday situations. Brooks liked that Dick Van Dyke was about a TV writer, Rob Petrie; even though Rob wrote for a variety show, Brooks could relate at least a little.

More importantly, this show had more believable characters than the sitcoms that came before it, even if they were funnier than ordinary people. When Rob’s wife, Laura, ruined a sexy weekend getaway by getting her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet, the incident made audiences laugh, but it also made (some) sense—more sense than Lucille Ball stomping grapes or working at a chocolate factory, in any case.

Female viewers could imagine being Laura, because the woman playing her, Mary Tyler Moore, was vulnerable and goofy along with being pretty; male viewers wanted to be Rob for the same reasons. Laura was never more adorable than when she called out, from behind a closed door, to explain her stuck toe: “I was playing with a drip.”

Moore could make a toe stuck in a faucet sexy and funny. She was a twenty-five-year-old actress with a brunette flip that women across the country were asking their hairstylists to re-create, a huge smile, gorgeous legs, and impeccable comic timing. The former dancer had grown up in Brooklyn Heights watching Milton Berle on television in the early ’50s and aspiring to perform like Mr. Television himself. Her grandfather, watching her prance around the house one afternoon in her youth, had cracked, “This child will either end up onstage or in jail.” She’d known even before then—from the age of about three, when she discovered her love of showing off—that it would be the former. By about the age of nine, just after World War II ended, she had moved with her family to Los Angeles at the urging of an uncle who was doing well there working as a music agent. Little Mary welcomed the move, figuring that it would bring her closer to being discovered by Hollywood.

She was, as it turned out, right. She’d gotten her first breaks on such television dramas as 77 Sunset Strip and briefly as Sam, the sultry secretary on Richard Diamond who was known to audiences only by her voice, lips, and legs. Moore was originally uncredited in the role but soon demanded a place in the credits and a raise when the character became a sensation. The producers turned her down, so she quit, then revealed her identity to the world in a small publicity coup. Soon after, she’d been chosen to play Laura Petrie as a “straight woman” to Van Dyke’s goofy charmer in his sitcom.

Nonetheless, Dick Van Dyke’s creator, Carl Reiner, had seen some inkling of humor in the actress and first tested it out in an early episode called “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” in which Laura bleaches her hair to ridiculous effect in an effort to spice up their marriage. When she’s forced to explain the debacle to her husband, she tells him in a masterful monologue-cum-crying-jag about what she’s done. In that moment, Moore felt the first thrill of making the audience laugh instead of simply setting up Van Dyke’s lines. The cry would become her trademark comedy move, reminiscent of Ball, and the incident proved to Reiner that Moore was a real comedian. The producer began gearing episodes more toward the couple at home than he had originally planned when conceiving the show, and eventually even gave her a catchphrase: “Oh, Rob!”

Everyone who watched fell in love with her, including Brooks. He fantasized about being a TV writer who worked with such people—comic geniuses and pretty brunettes alike—but for the moment he’d have to settle for writing about the news of the day.

On the opposite coast, a comedy writer named Allan Burns had similar thoughts as he watched The Dick Van Dyke Show. Burns worked on cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle and had helped create the sitcom The Munsters, but he saw himself as a better writer than any of his projects showed so far. He wanted to understand how The Dick Van Dyke Show elevated itself above other comedies of its time, so he watched it closely. He wanted to be Carl Reiner.

The melding of Rob’s work and home life, Burns thought, added a new dimension to the traditional home-based sitcom, as did Reiner’s clever writing and Van Dyke’s exceptional comedic skill. But Moore definitely stood out as special.

As stay-at-home mom Laura, Moore became a hit by forging a “very egalitarian and very sexual” relationship with on-screen husband Rob, as Moore explained it in interviews. The two clearly loved each other and didn’t get their comedy from fighting the way Lucy and Desi or The Honeymooners did. Laura’s formfitting Capri pants—which set off a nationwide trend with their daring show of calf—boosted the show’s sex appeal even more. So did the genuine romantic tension between the two stars, who clearly had a crush on each other no matter that both were married off-screen. The network and its sponsors still went to extremes to scrub the show of sexual implications: Rob and Laura had to sleep in separate beds, the word pregnant was not allowed (the censors preferred the more decorous “with child” or “expecting,” lest one link the lady’s condition with sex), and even getting Laura into pants was a hard-fought battle. But the show broke boundaries by subtle implication. Burns admired that.

He wasn’t alone in his admiration. In fact, Moore got an unforgettable vote of confidence from none other than Lucille Ball. The cast knew that occasionally, the sitcom queen—whose company, Desilu, owned the lot where the show shot—would lurk about. One day, Moore ran into her role model as Ball descended from a perch on the catwalk above where the Dick Van Dyke cast had just been rehearsing. Ball walked by Moore, then backtracked a few seconds later, looked her in the eye, and said, “You’re very good,” before she left. Moore would think of that whenever she felt unsure of herself.

Burns would have been shocked to learn Moore ever doubted her talent. He couldn’t believe, quite frankly, that a woman that good-looking could be that funny. Surely she had a stellar career ahead of her.



Five years later, that career didn’t look so good anymore, even when it was dressed in Audrey Hepburn finery. Broadway producer David Merrick’s public statement said it all: He had shut down production of his new play, a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Mary Tyler Moore, “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”

Things had clearly not gone as planned for the much-anticipated 1966 musical, nor for Moore’s post–Dick Van Dyke career. Earlier that year, The Dick Van Dyke Show had ended its five-year run when Reiner and Van Dyke started craving more variety in their work. They felt the show starting to get repetitive, and furthermore, wanted both Van Dyke and Moore to have a chance at bigger (that is, movie) stardom. Moore felt insecure about leaving her cozy nook at Dick Van Dyke, where her costars, the writers, and the crew all cared about her.

But life was pushing her in a clear new direction: Her husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, got a new job with NBC’s programming department that forced him and Moore to move to New York City. Tinker hated being back east, but Moore looked forward to testing out her new stardom, even though she still thought of herself, she said, as “a nervous chorus girl from Studio City, California.”

Moore planned to take advantage of their new home by giving the Broadway stage a try. She had originally studied ballet, and her first professional showbiz job had been, just a few months out of high school, as the dancing elf “Happy Hotpoint” in stove commercials featured during The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Now that she’d moved to New York, she wanted to return to dancing and her dream of starring in a musical, seeing her name on a Broadway marquee. When she got an offer to play Holly Golightly in the stage adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it seemed like her chance to pursue her musical dreams.

It could have been the perfect vehicle for a svelte brunette who could sing and dance and had an Audrey Hepburn–like combination of sweetness and sex appeal. Newsweek at the time described Moore, in a ’60s version of a compliment, as “the fantasy girl of the American dream . . . bright but not aggressive, wholesome but not puritanical, funny but not slapstick.” In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she could put those qualities to use and be part of a team that seemed like it couldn’t miss. The handsome Richard Chamberlain, known as TV’s Dr. Kildare, was cast opposite Moore on the stage. David Merrick, a mustachioed maverick producer, had a flair for dramatic publicity as well as onstage artistry. In 1961, he’d won a special Tony Award just for his exemplary production record.

But Merrick’s career had taken a dip the last year or so. The entertainment world was changing, and, like many of his contemporaries in the business, he hadn’t figured out how to catch up. Graphic violence and existential ennui were raking it in at the box office with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. The Beatles had gone from teen-pop idols who took The Ed Sullivan Show by storm to music revolutionaries with the release of their innovative Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the theater world, Cabaret—the tawdry story of a lady lounge performer of ill repute in Nazi Germany—was all the rage. Merrick tried to stay with the times, but found that depressing drama didn’t always translate into admirable edginess: The same year he planned to launch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his production of The Loves of Cass McGuire, Brian Friel’s play about an Irishwoman who becomes an alcoholic in America, closed in sixteen days. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about a teenager who kills her parents, lasted only a week.

The problems on Breakfast at Tiffany’s proved far worse, far higher-profile, and they started almost as soon as rehearsals began at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, on Fifty-first Street. The idea for the production had its inauspicious beginning in an airplane-ride argument between Merrick and songwriter Bob Merrill, known for his work on Funny Girl, about whether it was a good idea to do a musical version of Casablanca. Merrick said yes, Merrill said no. To punctuate his point, Merrill gestured to a guy across the aisle reading Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and said even that would make a better musical than Casablanca. Next thing Merrill knew, Merrick was convincing him to write songs about Holly Golightly.

Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director Joshua Logan soon joined the team. But they quickly began to argue over how to approach the difficult material. It was a sign of things to come: The crux of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was its tug-of-war between dark and light, and that had played out to brilliant effect in the 1961 movie version. Audrey Hepburn had solidified her star status by bringing a sweetness and vulnerability to a character who’s a kept woman at best, a high-class hooker at worst. Johnson and Logan soon quit the project. To take over the writing and directing duties, Merrick brought in Abe Burrows, who’d written and directed Cactus Flower, a farce that was still playing on Broadway after opening two years earlier, and who’d won Tonys for writing and directing the 1962 production How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Burrows had become so well-known for his script-doctoring skill that “Get me Abe Burrows!” was a standard cry among bereft producers. Burrows, upon taking the Breakfast at Tiffany’s job, decided to favor the novella’s darker tones rather than the movie version’s sparkle.

After harsh reviews in Boston and harsher reviews in Philadelphia for the show’s on-the-road previews, Moore grew terrified to return to New York, dreading the looks of pity she’d get at theater district hangout Sardi’s. She felt desperate to clear her name. She took on the look of someone who was about to jump out of a skyscraper window at every rehearsal and performance. The lack of TV’s retakes, camera work, or directors and writers she knew and trusted made things even worse. The men in charge of the production—Merrill and Merrick—admired her intense work ethic, but they weren’t Carl Reiner and John Rich from Dick Van Dyke. She missed being surrounded by people who knew how to guide her to her best work.

Merrick trashed the original script by Burrows. He needed a script doctor for the celebrated script doctor, and he was looking for Moore’s old boss, Reiner. But Reiner was vacationing in Europe with his wife after five years of round-the-clock sitcom work, so there was nothing Merrick or Moore could do to lure him back to the States to fix Breakfast at Tiffa...

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