Saturday, September 19, 2020

This Day in TV History (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Standard-Setting Workplace Comedy, Premieres)

Sept. 19, 1970—Premiering on CBS, The Mary Tyler Moore Show not only provided its titular star with an even longer-running series than the one that propelled her to star, The Dick Van Dyke Show, but also set new standards for adult, character-driven situation comedy.

I posted previously on the 75th birthday on the luminous Mary Tyler Moore and how she created an immensely appealing role model for the millions of “character women” thronging the American workplace as a result of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s

But one aspect of her career that deserves further exploration here is her generosity in ceding significant air time to fellow cast members—and her shrewdness in understanding that the sitcom’s success could be sustained through this attention to others, even to the point of allowing them to have many of the funniest lines in episodes.

For Mary Richards, a heartbroken runaway from a broken relationship, the workplace becomes a new form of family. By necessity, the show’s scripts needed to bring out the fun and caring of these new people in her new life in Minnesota.

Far more than The Dick Van Dyke Show, then, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would depend on its ensemble cast—wider, deeper, wringing laughter more from the nuances of character than from the laugh-a-minute pace of prior comedies.

The series was as strong on its last night on the air in 1977 as its first. For that, series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns required sturdy script architecture rather than interior decorating—multiple quirky but realistic characters that opened up near-endless comic possibilities, while taking the burden off the group’s first among equals, Ms. Moore. 

As I mentioned in a prior post, the two were delving more deeply into a dynamic they had touched on the year before with their ABC dramedy Room 222: a middle manager who functioned as the calm eye in a storm--in this case, a fast-paced newsroom.

Amazingly, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would manage to survive the departure of significant characters like Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom (each getting a spinoff series) while slotting in others that took up the slack—notably, daffy Georgette Franklin Baxter and “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens.

Moore and husband Grant Tinker, the co-head of their production company, MTM Enterprises, had received a commitment for 13 episodes from CBS, giving them four months to cast the show—an unusually long time. Ultimately, they would need every bit of it.

The best explanations for the course of this casting can be found in two interviews conducted by the Archive of American Television with Allan Burns and Mary Tyler Moore.

Gavin MacLeod was the first of the supporting players to be cast. Though called in to try out for the role of gruff Lou Grant, he asked if he could take a shot at Murray Slaughter. While Brooks and Burns had envisioned Murray as a comic nemesis for Mary Richards—something like a pesky mosquito, irritating her in close proximity from the adjacent newsroom desk—MacLeod’s warm conception led them to rethink Murray as an ally for Mary. 

Brooks and Burns were similarly unexpectedly impressed by Cloris Leachman as intrusive neighbor Phyllis, and quickly cast her, too.

Then, the show entered a prolonged casting void, as Brooks, Burns, Moore and Tinker tried to achieve the right alchemy of actor and character.

Silver-haired Ted Knight was different from the tall, dark and handsome anchorman—and possible Mary love interest—Ted Baxter was expected to be. But a terrific nightclub appearance by Knight led them to rethink him. (Two L.A. newscasters, George Putnam and Jerry Dunphy, along with actor Jack Cassidy, are believed to have inspired the creation of the buffoonish Baxter.)

Ed Asner was masterful in his initial audition as Mary’s bearish but lovable boss Lou Grant. But, when he performed with Ms. Moore, the magic of that earlier effort mysteriously vanished. But, just before he left, he also to try it again. This time, according to Ms. Moore, he pulled “gold from his pocket.”

Much like Ms. Moore’s casting on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Valerie Harper came aboard at the last minute. In certain ways, it was the trickiest character to deal with. Ms. Harper recalled that reading as “the easiest, most pleasant audition process I ever went through,” but the initial studio audience reaction to her brash, bandana-wearing Rhoda Morgenstern was frosty. 

It required an astute adjustment of dialogue to turn that around. Instead of leaving the audience simply with Phyllis’ characterization of “that dumb awful woman that lives upstairs,” they included the assessment of Phyllis’ precocious daughter Bess that “Aunt Rhoda's really a lot of fun--Mom hates her,” thereby considering softening perceptions of the woman contesting Mary’s right to the apartment who will eventually become her dearest friend.

The influence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be seen in such later ensemble sitcoms as Cheers, 30 Rock, Friends, Murphy Brown, and The Office, as well as other critically acclaimed but now less well-remembered Eighties shows as Blair Brown’s The Days and Nights of Molly Brown and Geena Davis’ Sara. But it was difficult for any of these latter series to match the intricate craftsmanship of the original, and impossible to match its warmth.

Moore, Tinker, Burns and Brooks fashioned something miraculous: not merely brilliant writing, but actors who performed with consistent professionalism and ease with each other. For all the wit of the dialogue, the appropriate enduring impression of the final episode is of a group hug among perhaps the finest ensemble in sitcom history.  

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