Not many are lucky enough to say this, but I can. The first “gig” I got in this business was at MTM Enterprises, hanging around the set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. One of my very first wide-eyed memories of actually realizing my dream of being a part of show business was meeting Mary Tyler Moore during rehearsal on her soundstage at CBS’ Radford studios in Studio City, where I stupidly asked, “Were you really the Happy Hotpoint elf?”
I had boned up on her entire career and that was a reference to her first job in the business doing commercials on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet playing an elf who danced on Hotpoint appliances. She could not have been nicer to a young comedy writing student intern who couldn’t believe he was spending the summer (thanks to the Television Academy’s student TV intern programm which still exists) with Mary, Lou, Rhoda, Ted, Murray, Phyllis and Sue Ann, to name a few. I thought of that today when I heard this industry giant had died at age 80. Not only was I lucky enough to be there as a fly on the wall every day when this iconic show was being made that memorable summer, I also got to steal the first three seasons’ worth of scripts, which I still have.
Playing the impossibly sexy suburban mom and wife for much of the ’60s in The Dick Van Dyke Show (how can any red-blooded American boy forget the sight of her in those Capris?), and then starring in her own equally classic and groundbreaking sitcom for much of the ’70s was a one-two punch rarely equaled in TV history. That is clearly her legacy, but there was so much more to her that people don’t often talk about. For me, spending that summer on the MTM set was an amazing window on what it takes to be great in this business, and it miraculously came full circle decades later when in 2008 I was privileged to host the TV Academy’s 60th Anniversary Tribute to Betty White at their North Hollywood theater. For that occasion virtually the entire cast of the MTM show including Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Gavin MacLeod, Cloris Leachman, Georgia Engel and, of course, Mary came to reunite in honor of Betty. The crowd rose to their feet and went wild when I brought them up to the stage. Mary was in terrific form that night, and for those lucky enough to be there, it was an event to remember.
But beyond those two classic series, there is so much more to remember about this multiple-Emmy winning star, who was made for the TV medium but conquered stage and movies with equal success. She earned a Tony for her stirring work in Whose Life Is It Anyway? and a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1980 for her coldly indifferent mother in Robert Redford’s Best Picture winner Ordinary People. She played way against type in that one as a very different kind of suburban mother than Laura Petrie, but she created a three-dimensional human being from someone who was almost evil incarnate. It was surprising casting at the time, but Redford clearly could see the dramatic talent underneath the surface of a star who many referred to as “America’s Sweetheart.” She won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama and almost certainly would have won that Oscar had it not been for Sissy Spacek’s once-in-a-lifetime role that year as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
She had other movie roles, but none surpassed Ordinary People, a character she dug deep into finding. Maybe some of it came from channeling tragedy in her own life, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and the mother of a son (her only child) who accidentally killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Or maybe not. However she got there, that role is one for the ages and so apart from the comedic turns that helped keep the lights on at CBS, and turned the world on “with a smile.”
Among her few other big screen movies, I have a soft spot for 1967’s musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which she thoroughly showed off her considerable dancing talents opposite Julie Andrews. Two years later she even played a nun opposite Elvis in 1969’s Change of Habit, his last film as an actor. Her last really good big screen turn though came in David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy Flirting With Disaster in which she hilariously, and revealingly, played Ben Stiller’s adoptive mother.
For someone who really did start as a dancing elf and then moved on to play perhaps the most famous pair of legs ever on TV — as the unseen secretary on 1950s drama Richard Diamond: Private Detective starring David Janssen — she landed pretty nicely. It was, of course, television that made her a legend, but in addition to the weekly wonders of those flawless comedies, she did some exceptional TV movies. There was the Betty Rollins cancer story First You Cry, Finnegan Begin Again, Run a Crooked Mile, The Gin Game (with Van Dyke), Stolen Babies and the wonderful pairing with the late great James Garner in Heartsounds.
And how tragic that her death closely follows the passing of former husband and business partner Grant Tinker because the pair created in MTM Enterprises, one of the most successful, quality-based TV production companies ever. It was responsible not just for her own show and its numerous spinoffs but also The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, Lou Grant and so many others that dominated the Emmys. She had a great eye for talent. Even on Mary, the unsuccessful, short-lived CBS variety series she did in 1978, her regular co-stars included a pre-Late Night David Letterman and pre-fame Michael Keaton.
It is really hard to believe that the 1970 sitcom with the theme song that said “love is all around” is now nearly a half-century old. It hasn’t aged a bit. Mary Richards, forging her way into the male-dominated TV news business during a time when it wasn’t possible for most women, was truly a role model and still is today. The series that never really has been off the air, discovered constantly by new generations. “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” one of that show’s most classic episodes (and there were soooo many of them), still gets me every time I see it. Every. Single. Time. That’s the one where Mary desperately tries to control her sudden bursts of laughs during the funeral service for her TV station’s kid show star Chuckles the Clown. It is simply brilliant comic acting. Next to Lucy, maybe Carol, there was no one better.
It is hard to believe this legend is gone. But in place of tears, I am going to smile every time I think of this bright star who may have entered our lives as a dancing elf but left an icon.
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