Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 80, became a feminist icon with her hit 1970 sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As Mary Richards, Moore was the unthinkable — a single career woman on television, out to “make it on her own” (as the show’s iconic theme song described), without the help of a man.
It was a progressive concept that marked a shift in popular and political culture — and would go on to influence a generation of women, including Oprah Winfrey, and inspire them to visualized a world for themselves outside of simply being a wife and homemaker.
But when Moore was coming off her breakthrough role in 1961’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, the idea of playing Mary Richards was far from her mind. As Jennifer Keishin Armstrong explained in Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted, Moore had hoped the show would continue past 1966 — but Van Dyke and the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, were both focused on other projects.
An actress with a background in dance, Moore tried her shot at musicals — first joining Julie Andrews and Carol Channing for the 1967 movie musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, then trying her shot on stage in the musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany‘s. The latter only lasted four preview performances on Broadway — closing in 1966 without ever officially opening.
All that changed in 1969 though, when Moore reunited with Dick Van Dyke in his television special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. She was used to playing the straight-woman next to Van Dyke, but her performance in the variety special allowed her to test our her comedy chops. She was so captivating, CBS approached her about returning to television.
“CBS noted how successful it was and how comfortable I seemed being in the spotlight and they asked me if I wanted to do my own show — a situation comedy,’ she explained to the Archive of American Television in 2010. The deal allowed them to go directly to series, without stopping through the pilot process.
It would have been easy for Moore to step into a role similar to married housewife she played on The Dick Van Dyke Show. But writers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns had different thoughts — pitching a story that would cast Moore as a single woman emerging from a failed relationship, working in the big city (Minneapolis) at a small TV news station while balancing home life with her friends, rather than her family.
The kicker? Unlike similar shows including That Girl, Mary Richards would never be defined as a man. In fact, she would never have a long-lasting romantic relationship. She found fulfillment, instead, in her career — just like millions of women were doing across the country in the American workplace.
Moore was immediately into the idea — calling it “progressive.” But CBS was less excited when they heard that the character was meant to be coming off a divorce.
“As soon as CBS heard that they hit the ceiling,” she recounted. “They said, ‘You can’t have Mary divorced from somebody — even if she has a different last name! They’re going to think she divorced Dick Van Dyke!’ ”
Still, they moved forward — Moore and husband Grant Tinker, forming their production company MTM Enterprises and stocking the writers room with women who were actually living the stories they hoped to tell on screen.
Casting would shift the needle on their original vision for the show. “Ted Baxter, in their minds, was supposed to be tall dark and handsome and a love interest for Mary. And then they saw Ted Knight. And with all his pomposity and his bluster, they decided to just leap at the opportunity that Ted offered them,” Moore recounted.
“Rhoda was supposed to be kind of non-glamorous — she was supposed to be dowdy and schlubby. It was a tricky character, because she had to be abrasive and tough and hard-edged and she had to be lovable. And Valerie Harper came in and she was her,” she added.
Similar shifts happened with the role of Murray Slaughter, who was originally supposed to be Mary’s nemesis but shifted to Mary’s loving best friend when actor Gavin MacLeod read for the part. “Gavin came in and was just so warm and embracing and dear that they felt that that was a better thing to write to,” said Moore.
Perhaps the biggest casting was that of WJM-TV news director Lou Grant — who would notably hire Richards because she because she had spunk, even though he hated spunk.
While the part went to Ed Asner, he almost lost the chance. “Ed, like me, had not done any real comedy,” Moore recounted. “I think he’d done some plays and some theater somewhere. And then I came in and read with him and something happened. And he just lost it. It became lugubrious and tedious. And as he was getting up and backing towards the door, he said, “‘Wait a minute — I’d like to do it again if I could.’ And everybody said, ‘Yeah sure.’ And he was superb.”
With the cast in place, it was time to test the first show in front of an audience. But their reaction showed the writers there was something missing.
“We did a run-through of the script on a Wednesday night for an audience and we were counting on the reaction to tell us what we had, and they didn’t like it,” Moore remembered. “They didn’t laugh at anything. I said to Grant, ‘They’ve got to fix it. They’ve got to fix it’ ”
Turns out, it was one small change that changed everything — they made the daughter of Cloris Leachman‘s character Phyllis Lindstrom bond with Rhoda.
“[The audience] didn’t like the fact that Rhoda was mean to Mary. And so they figured out if a child like Rhoda, then she wasn’t all mean. There was something in her that could be lovable,” Moore said. “That following Friday, we did the very same show and it went through the roof.”
The audience may have loved it that night, but not all audiences did. When CBS tested the show in focus groups, it ended up famously being “the lowest-ranked television episode ever viewed in the history of CBS.”
That changed, of course, when the show actually started airing. It would become a commercial and critical smash — lasting seven seasons, sparring three spin-offs and winning 29 Emmy awards (including three for Moore herself, and outstanding comedy series three years in a row), three Golden Globes and a Peabody.
Walking away from it all would be just as hard for Mary Tyler Moore as it was for Mary Richards. “The producers and writers wanted to go on to other things,” Moore said. “And at the time, it was incumbent on me to profess absolute belief that this was the smart thing to do. To go off while we’re ahead an on top.”
“But I was crumbling inside,” Moore admitted. “I didn’t want to end. Again, it was my family.”
Looking back on the show, Moore felt content with the legacy she had left behind. “Very few of us are lucky enough to, at the end of our life, know we were here for some purpose,” she said. “And I am going to be those lucky few. I know I served some people very well.”
Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are now available on Hulu.