July 7, 2013

Mary Tyler Moore Show: Groundbreaking, or a Reflection of How America Was Changing?

The Mary Tyler Moore (MTM) Show premiered CBS in 1970 and ran until 1977.  The show's name comes from the actress who played the lead character, even though the character's name was Mary Richards on the show.  Perhaps it's because Mary Tyler Moore was already a well-known television personality at the time, having co-starred in a (black and white, no less) popular sitcom called "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as his wife, Laura Petrie.  I don't know.  But The MTM Show was considered groundbreaking at the time it premiered.

The reason?

The lead character was a never-married, independent career woman.  As Mary Richards, she was a single woman in her thirties, and moved to Minneapolis after breaking off an engagement with her boyfriend of 2 years.  She applied for a secretarial job at TV station WJM, but that was already taken, but she was instead offered a position of associate producer of the station's "Six O'Clock News".  Mary Richards was very different from other single women on TV before her (or even at that time).  She was neither widowed nor divorced, but she was also not seeking a man to support her.  Prior to that, the only other show I can think of which even came close was "That Girl" (which was a Desilu production at the time, although Desilu was purchased by Gulf+Western in 1967, which renamed the company Paramount Television, which would later become CBS Television).  "That Girl" ran on ABC from 1966-1971 and starred Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie who moves from her hometown of Brewster, NY to try to make it big as a young actress in New York City.  But Ann Marie had a fashion wardrobe that no one in her financial situation could afford, even if she did break the mold of women depicted in roles as homemakers or traditional employment as secretaries (adminstrative assistants) or nurses.   But unlike Mary Richards on MTM, Ann Marie was pretty attached to her boyfriend Donald Hollinger (played by actor Ted Bessell), and the lead character Ann Marie also reached out to her parents somewhat regularly.

Turning the World on With Her Smile While Paving the Way for Women's Independence

Looking back at it, its hard to believe MTM show was so groundbreaking for its portrayal of women's roles that were not happy homemakers in those days, but it was.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of a new book about Mary Richards and the rest of the gang at the WJM newsroom and the real life people behind the show.  Her book is entitled "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic" says that MTM's lead character, Mary Richards was really "The first kind of really independent single woman.  She's 30, unapologetically single on television".  Armstrong says it's from her that we got the single-girl television shows that push boundaries in modern times, from "Sex & the City" to "Girls".

Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace radio recently interviewed Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and that interview can be listened to below, or by visiting http://bit.ly/16cI89Z:

The new book examines the role that working women on television had in the early 1970s, and I've already said that Mary Tyler Moore helped pave the way for the revolution that followed, specifically the disappearance of stay-at-home mothers which would become the exception rather than the rule.  Indeed, Gen X kids paid a price for that by essentially having to care for themselves while both their fathers and mothers were out earning a living.  There were no lesson plans on how to deal with the family dynamics of both spouses working, so it was very much on-the-job training, and Gen X was on the front lines of that.

To be sure, some social conservatives would like to blame women's lib and personal self-fulfillment on narcissism, but the reality was that lousy economic times played a far bigger role than they'd like to acknowledge.  Around that time, it was becoming painfully evident that it was simply no longer possible to live what Americans like to think of as the American Dream on a single income except for the most affluent segments of the population.  Hence, working women became an economic necessity.  Television shows like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" reflected what was already happening in the U.S. at the time.

MTM paved the way for other hit sitcoms that followed, including "One Day At A Time" (see my post on that sitcom at http://goo.gl/DSznq for more on that show), about a divorced women trying to raise two daughters on her own while also trying to earn an income.  Mary Tyler Moore herself, a TV veteran from the days in which TV was still recorded in Black and White who was a big reason for the show's strategic direction.  She, and her then-husband Grant Tinker, really pushed the show's depiction of the changing role of women when it premiered in early 1970s.

The MTM show's cast moved on to do a host of other TV shows, including "Rhoda", "Valerie", "The Love Boat", "Two Close for Comfort", and various others, all thanks to Mary Tyler Moore.

These days, Mary devotes most of her time as the International Chairman of JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), an autoimmune disease which renders individuals' lives completely dependent on an exogenous source of the hormone insulin, and carries a constant risk of life-threatening complications because managing the disease is far more complex than taking a pill and modifying diet.  Moore herself has the disease, but in her successful career, aside from being a Tony-nominated stage actress, is also an accomplished film actress.  In fact, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in 1980's "Ordinary People", and was also nominated for the Academy Award for the same role.

MTM Female Cast Reunites on "Hot In Cleveland"

Mary Tyler Moore and much of the cast from the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" (MTM) are getting a fair amount of publicity these days.  Indeed, on April 5, 2013, most the entire MTM cast (at least the women on the show) were reunited to record an episode for Season 4 of TV Land's original show "Hot In Cleveland" (the actual episode will air September 4, 2013 at 10pm ET/PT).  The women of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" had not been on a television sitcom together since MTM ended in 1977.

Mary herself had already been a guest on "Hot In Cleveland" during the show's second season, in which she shared a jail cell with Elka (played by Betty White, who's a regular cast member on "Hot in Cleveland").  Betty White talked briefly about Mary Tyler Moore's guest appearance on "Hot in Cleveland" and that commentary can be seen at the following link: http://bit.ly/19ivMdr.

Betty White was a regular (starting in season 4) on The MTM Show playing the The Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, on who gave advice on TV to housewives on cooking and decorating on the show's fictional WJM-TV in Minneapolis, MN.  On-screen, Sue Ann Nivens gave the impression of a sweet, perfect wife and homemaker, yet her character off-screen was sardonic and  man-obsessed.  More recently, another female actress from MTM show joined the cast of "Hot In Cleveland", specifically actress Georgia Engel who's now a recurring cast member who plays Mamie (she joined "Hot in Cleveland" in season 4).

Bittersweet MTM Reunion To Air on September 4, 2013

The "Hot in Cleveland" reunion for the women of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is kind of bittersweet.  That's because actress Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary's best friend (BFF), told the world that she was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal brain cancer in the winter of 2013, so the "Hot In Cleveland" episode will likely be one of her final sitcom appearances.

Ms. Harper told the press she had some stroke-like symptoms that sent her to the hospital which lead to a diagnosis on January 15, 2013 of a rare type of brain cancer called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain.  Her diagnosis is terminal, and Ms. Harper told People magazine (see http://bit.ly/WQSl91) as well as the Today show and TV show "The Doctors" that she likely had only a months to live.  Valerie Harper has been very public with her diagnosis.  I may try to cover Valerie Harper in a separate post since I have enjoyed her recent autobiography and my readers may enjoy it, too.

Indeed, Valerie Harper is getting a fair amount of TV coverage these days.  Her battle with terminal brain cancer will be chronicled in a one-hour documentary from NBC News to be hosted by Meredith Vieira which airs Septmber 19, 2013 at 10 pm, and will offer a first-person account as Harper pursues experimental treatments and continues on with day-to-day life accompanied by her husband Tony Cacciotti and their daughter Christina.  She allowed camera crews to follow her as she goes on doctor's visits, undergoes surgery and reunites with friends and family.

Beyond that, The Me-TV network plans to start airing "Rhoda" reruns starting next week.

As I noted, Ms. Harper was Mary Richards's BFF on MTM back in the early 1970s.  She also had a hit spin-off from that show after MTM ended known as "Rhoda" (both MTM and "Rhoda" are now available on DVD).  In 1987, Valerie Harper made news for being fired from a TV show named after her ("Valerie") by what was then Lorimar Telepictures over a salary dispute (see http://lat.ms/16un2UJ for background).  Lorimar replaced her in the NBC show named after her with actress Sandy Duncan, who supposedly played her sister-in-law, and the show was retitled "Valerie's Family", although the show did not last very long after Valerie Harper was let go.

On that point, even rival NBC television show "The Golden Girls", then in season 4 in the episode known as "The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo" kind of jokes about the dispute in which she goes to a local supermarket representing the elderly, but notes "I've got a a better case than Valerie Haper!"  While in one sense they were lightly poking fun at Valerie, it showed the issues actors were still having with big Hollywood studios of the day.  Lorimar, for the record, later became a subsidiary of Warner Bros., active from 1969 until 1993, at which point it was folded into Warner Television.

I'll close with the lyrics to the iconic MTM theme song "Love is All Around" by Sonny Curtis; you can download the full song by visiting http://amzn.to/13pErZD:

How will you make it on your own?
This world is awfully big, girl this time you're all alone
But it's time you started living
It's time you let someone else do some giving

Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have a town, why don't you take it
You're gonna make it after all
You're gonna make it after all

Author P.S., January 25, 2017:  There was news today that actress Mary Tyler Moore - considered to one of television's early feminists (along with Marlo Thomas, who played on the sitcom "That Girl" from 1966-1971) because she played a single, career woman in her namesake sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" from 1970-1977), well before the term became popular, had died at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut (see the obituary at https://nyti.ms/2k1cN79 for more detail), which was where she and her husband Dr. Robert Levine lived (along with a Manhattan, NY address where they lived part-time).  She was 80 years old at the time of her passing.  The cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest after she had contracted pneumonia.

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