15 Awfully Big Facts About The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Loyal viewers who grew up watching the independent, intelligent, and perky career woman named Mary Richards always knew that she would make it after all. Younger folks who’ve only seen the show in reruns likely don’t realize just how groundbreaking The Mary Tyler Moore Show was. While some of the scenarios presented seem dated by today’s standards, the show's portrayal of how women in general, and single women in particular, were treated in the workplace—and by society—was very accurate for that time. Fortunately for future single working women TV characters like Elaine Benes and Liz Lemon, our Mare had spunk!
1. A Dick Van Dyke show (no, not that one) helped to launch Mary’s solo sitcom career.
When The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966, Mary Tyler Moore was poised to make the leap into films. She had inked a deal with Universal Pictures and starred in three features in rapid succession, only one of which (Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Julie Andrews) won critical praise and performed well at the box office. With her marquee value fading, Moore leaped at the offer to reunite with her old co-star in the 1969 CBS variety special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. The show was written by Sam Denoff and Bill Persky, the same duo who’d written for Van Dyke’s sitcom; their inspiration for the special was a minor complaint Van Dyke's wife, Marjorie, once made—that very often, when she was out in public with her husband, she’d hear comments about him “cheating” on Laura (Moore). The special was a critical and ratings success, and based on the strength of those Nielsen numbers, CBS offered Moore a half-hour slot on their network with a guarantee of 24 episodes, no pilot necessary.
2. Mary Richards was originally a divorcée.
When the creative team behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show was originally brainstorming the concept, they envisioned Mary Richards as a recently divorced 30-year-old who had moved to a new apartment and needed to find a job after her husband had left her. But CBS network researchers warned series co-creator Allan Burns that there were four things viewers (especially the all-important “mainstream audience in Peoria”) would never accept in their living rooms and which could spell early death for a TV show: New Yorkers, Jews, divorced women, and men with mustaches.
Despite the warning, Burns and his staff kept the brash Jewish New York-transplant Rhoda character (played by Valerie Harper), who originally tested poorly with audiences but who softened up after a few episodes. They did acquiesce on the divorcée angle, though, after preview audiences (who couldn’t distinguish between Mary Tyler Moore and Laura Petrie, her character from The Dick Van Dyke Show) openly reviled Mary for leaving a nice guy like Dick Van Dyke. Instead they made Mary a woman who had recently broken off a two-year long engagement and was looking to start life anew, in her own apartment, supporting herself, and being unencumbered by a relationship.
3. The MTM kitten was found in a Minneapolis shelter.
It was Grant Tinker’s (Moore’s then-husband) idea to name their new production company MTM Enterprises, and Moore didn’t argue since that meant her name was the company. The similarity to MGM hadn’t gone unnoticed and during an early staff meeting someone suggested that since MTM was a small company, wouldn’t it be cute to have a kitten meow like the MGM lion? A staffer visited an animal shelter in Minneapolis and found several orange kittens (they wanted a cat with a fur color similar to a lion's) and chose the one with the loudest “mew.” The kitten was named Mimsie and she appeared in many different forms in the production tags of various MTM shows. A crew member adopted her and took her home to San Bernardino, where Mimsie lived until the ripe old age of 20.
4. Gavin MacLeod auditioned for the role of Lou Grant.
Allan See started losing his hair at age 18, while he was studying drama at New York’s Ithaca College. By the time he graduated he was pretty much bald, which limited his roles as an actor. He changed his name to Gavin MacLeod and maintained a fairly steady career playing heavies, thanks to his bald pate and bulky physique. MTM co-founder Grant Tinker invited MacLeod to audition for the role of Lou Grant, which he did, but afterward he asked to read for the role of Mary’s co-worker, Murray Slaughter. He thought he could bring more to the affable Murray character than the gruff and imposing Lou. The producers agreed with him after Ed Asner tested for the role of Mary’s boss.
5. The producers had Jack Cassidy in mind when they created the character of Ted Baxter.
But Cassidy turned them down, having just played an egomaniacal pretty-boy actor on the sitcom He & She. He wasn’t looking to get typecast as a hammy buffoon. The role went to Ted Knight instead. Once The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a hit, however, Cassidy changed his mind and appeared as Ted’s preening egotistical brother, Hal, in the episode “Cover Boy.”
6. Ted Knight was living paycheck-to-paycheck when he was cast as Ted Baxter.
The second choice for the role of the anchorman was Lyle Waggoner, but he was happily ensconced on The Carol Burnett Show and had no desire to leave a successful series for an untested one. Jennifer Aniston’s father, John, read for the part of Ted and was called back twice, but the producers were not quite sure he was “the one." Producer Dave Davis happened to see Ted Knight performing in a local production of the Broadway comedy You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running and reported to the rest of the team that Knight was hilarious and that they should have him read for the role of Ted Baxter.
Even though the silver-haired Knight was a far cry from the hunky heartthrob-type they originally had in mind, Knight came to the audition wearing an anchorman-style blue blazer he had purchased from a thrift store with part of his rent money and impressed them with his booming voice and comedic chops. During that brief reading, he brought some layers to the anchorman character (cocky and arrogant on the outside, but secretly vulnerable and very human) that impressed the MTM staff and inspired some new newsroom story ideas for the show.
7. Ted Knight hated being confused with “Ted Baxter” and almost quit the show.
Midway through the show's third season, Ted Knight walked into co-creator Allan Burns’ office before the start of rehearsal with tears running down his face. Alarmed, Burns ran from behind his desk to embrace the actor and ask what was wrong. “I can’t do it,” Knight cried. “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 consoled Knight, giving him examples of other great comedic actors who were nothing like the characters they played. Knight eventually composed himself and turned to go out to the stage for rehearsal when co-creator James L. Brooks walked into the room and congenially slapped the actor on the back, greeting him with “Ah, Ted—the world’s favorite schmuck.”
Luckily, Knight soldiered on. As the series progressed, his character found a girlfriend, got married, and had the occasional “very special” episode to remind the audience that he wasn’t all bluster and buffoonery.
8. Hazel Frederick was seen in every single episode of the series.
Hazel who? Picture it: It was a cold, blustery day in downtown Minneapolis in 1969, and Hazel was out doing her shopping at Donaldson’s Department Store. She exited the store and proceeded across Nicollet Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the city. She noticed an attractive young brunette walking ahead of her into traffic. The woman suddenly stopped and gleefully tossed her hat into the air. That brunette was Mary Tyler Moore, and a film crew (using hidden equipment in order to be unobtrusive and keep the scene more natural) was recording her hat toss for the opening credits of her upcoming new show. To make it more realistic, traffic wasn’t halted, and Mare had to negotiate her own way across the street for that famous freeze frame. (That’s Hazel Frederick between the “James” and the “And.”)
9. Mary Richards was “evicted” from her old apartment.
For the first five seasons of the show, Mary Richards lived in Apartment D, located inside an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian home outfitted with Palladian windows and an iron balcony. Paula Giese, who owned the house with her husband at the time, claimed that she’d been told the exterior shots of her house would be used for a documentary that would be aired one time, not for a TV series. Once The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a hit, Giese was inundated with visitors at all hours of the day and night ringing her doorbell to ask if “Mary” was home. Eventually tour buses full of fans showed up on her curb.
In the spring of 1973 the Gieses got word that MTM producers would be back in the area to film more outdoor shots of their house for future use in the opening credits. Paula, a local political activist, immediately hung a series of "Impeach Nixon" banners on the outside of her home to discourage the cameramen. Her tactic worked, and Mary Richards moved to a new high-rise early in season six.
10. Valerie Harper almost didn’t get the role of Rhoda because she was too attractive.
The character of Rhoda, Mary’s neighbor and eventual best friend, was originally described as “a self-made loser—overweight, not good with hair and make-up, and self-deprecating.” Of all the actresses who tested for the role, Valerie Harper was the producers' hands-down favorite. But there was one problem: she was beautiful. The producers asked her to “frump herself up a bit” for her second reading, but she still looked too pretty. So, just like the characters of Ted Baxter and Murray Slaughter, the producers rethought the character to suit the actor. They decided that even if she was attractive, they’d make Rhoda the type of woman who didn’t think she was and who regularly put herself down.
11. The script supervisor (and Phyllis’s daughter) rescued the pilot episode.
The MTM brass made the unusual decision to perform the premiere episode twice; first they would invite a studio audience in to watch the dress rehearsal on Tuesday, and they would also have tape in the cameras recording it so that the cast and production staff could watch and evaluate it prior to Friday’s actual filming. The actors went through their paces but weren’t getting the laughs that they were expecting. A post-show poll of the audience revealed that they hated Rhoda, thought she was too mean to sweet Mary in the opening scene, and that perception left a pall over the rest of the episode.
While the writers were frantically trying to find a fix for their show without having to do a major overhaul, script supervisor Marjorie Mullen came up with an idea: The show opened with Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and her young daughter, Bess (Lisa Gerritsen), showing Mary her new apartment. They find “that dumb, awful Rhoda” (according to Phyllis) out on the balcony, washing the window because she was under the impression that it was going to be her apartment. Mullen’s idea was to give Bess an extra line not originally in the script: “Aunt Rhoda’s really a lot of fun! Mom hates her ... ” The change worked; if a little girl thought Rhoda was cool, it was OK for the audience to like her, too. The laughs came in all the right places during Friday’s taping.
12. The men in the cast weren’t sorry to see Valerie Harper leave the series.
The Rhoda character eventually became popular enough to be spun off into her own series, and the “boys” on the show were happy to see her go. Nothing against Valerie Harper—by all accounts she was very sweet and easy to work with. It was just that when Rhoda was still on the show, many episodes focused on “the girls” and the action took place at Mary’s apartment and away from the newsroom, leaving the men with a lot less screen time.
13. The “designer” of Mary’s infamous green dress met a tragic end in real life.
Barbara Colby first appeared as a hooker named Sherry in the “Will Mary Richards Go To Jail?” episode and made such an impression that she was brought back a second time. In “You Try to Be a Nice Guy,” Sherry enlists Mary’s aid to find a job in order to maintain her parole. She ultimately tries her hand at fashion design and presents Mary with a green dress that exposes a lot of flesh (which elicits a priceless reaction from Ted Baxter). Colby was given a co-starring role in the Cloris Leachman spin-off series Phyllis in 1975. She had filmed just three episodes when she and a male friend were accosted and shot by two men in a Venice, California, parking lot the night of July 24, 1975. Colby died at the scene; her companion lived long enough to describe their mysterious attackers (who hadn’t robbed them) before dying of his wounds. The culprits were never caught and the case remains unsolved.
14. Mary really did have to struggle to keep a straight face during the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode.
Often listed as one of the best sitcom episodes, this entry touched on a dark subject: the death of WJM children’s show host Chuckles the Clown. (He’d been dressed as Peter Peanut to serve as Grand Marshall of a circus parade and a rogue elephant tried to shell him.) Mary was supposed to remain grim and mournful while the rest of the newsroom made jokes about his unusual demise, but during every rehearsal she continually cracked up whenever Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo (one of Chuckles’ many characters) was mentioned. She recalled in her autobiography that the insides of her cheeks were almost raw from biting them so hard to keep from laughing during the actual taping of the episode.
15. It was the first U.S. network series to break character and feature a curtain call.
After seven seasons Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore decided to end their show while it was still performing strongly in the ratings rather than continuing on, risking a drop in quality and ultimately getting cancelled. It was one of the rare series finales that allowed the characters to bid farewell to one another in the context of the show, and it also featured another first: Moore introduced each of her castmates to the audience for a final curtain call before the end credits rolled.
After All, by Mary Tyler Moore
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, by by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Archive of American Television interviews with Edward Asner, Gavin MacLeod, and Mary Tyler Moore
This post originally appeared in 2015.