From the Archives: The Last Days of the Late, Great Mary Tyler Moore Show

Our 1976 feature on the end of a TV era

This article originally appeared in the November 1976 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

A hand goes up in the studio audience. It’s a Friday night like 168 other Friday nights during the past seven years, and some 375 people are packed into backless, barely padded bleachers in a soundstage on the CBS lot in Studio city to watch the reigning queen of situation comedy, six-time Emmy winner Mary Tyler Moore, film her weekly series.

“Is it true that this is Mary’s last season?” asks a peroxided blonde in the fourth row.  

Executive story consult and David Lloyd, who wrote tonight’s script and has been acting as a warmup comic and narrator for the filming, does an elaborate double take. He turns to producer Ed Weinberger, assistant producer Bud Cherry and writer Jim Brooks.

“You guys know anything about that?” he says. They all shrug.

“Gosh,” Lloyd says. “She has to give us two weeks’ notice. She can’t just walk out.” Mary, leaning against the bar in the set depicting her Minneapolis high-rise apartment, grins wryly.

Lloyd turns back to the audience. “Seriously, folks, it’s a fair question. It’s just not one I have a funny answer for.”

 It’s true. This is the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s last season. But don’t touch that dial. Not a week will go by without the smiling, leggy brunette and her TV family adorning your screen. The final rerun will air next September 14, and the following week the show goes into syndication, to be seen five nights a week on NBC affiliates across the country. Many aficionados, late in latching onto the series, have been looking forward to those reruns for years.

And the real Mary Tyler Moore, live and in person, won’t be idle, either. She’ll star in two variety specials next season, and she hopes that out of those will evolve a format she can use for a weekly variety series beginning in fall 1978.

“Whatever Mary wants to do, she’ll do,” says husband Grant Tinker, “But she’s going to have to let it roll around in her head for a while. She doesn’t underestimate how difficult it is for a weekly variety series to be fresh and different.” And Mary? She feels “tremendous sadness” about the end of the Mary Richards era, “as you do when you end any phase of life where you leave behind dear and good friends. From the standpoint of creativity, it is healthy and necessary to go on and break new ground.”

Crossing those long, long legs, she goes on: “When you play the same character for seven years, you know all the facets, all the techniques, and once you reach that niche, it’s time to go on. It’s just not as challenging as it was in the beginning. I don’t feel any dissatisfaction with playing Mary Richards, but I guess that I am part masochist. We’re successful and we’re established, and for that I am grateful. But successful and established is also safe, and safe is only good for so long.

“I miss the fear of trying a new part. I miss worrying about it, and I miss not being able to sleep at night. Yes, and I guess I miss being sometimes not so successful.”

1) Ed Asner, Mark (“Chuckles the Clown”) Gordon and Jerry Van Dyke; 2) Ted and Walter; 3) Ed and Priscilla Morrill (as ex-Mrs. Lou Grant); 4) Ed and Betty White; 5) Ted, Ed and John Amos; 6) Ted running for office, flanked by Cloris Leachman; 7) Ted and Georgia being married by a tennis-playing preacher; 8) John Shuck portraying a Minnesota Viking trying out for a sportscasting job

Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises, Inc., headed by Tinker, leases six soundstages on CBS’ San Fernando Valley lot, where they film Phyllis, Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show and The Tony Randall Show, along with Mary’s show. A sixth series, Doc, is taped elsewhere. MTM herself says she is involved in the other shows “in initial only. I’m interested only in the way that a wife is interested in her husband’s business.”

While the Moore and Newhart shows have been blockbusters from the start, both Rhoda and Phyllis have undergone drastic overhauls this season, and both made mediocre showings in the early ratings. Ed Weinberger says, “We didn’t really have a choice with Rhoda, because we couldn’t do the show we had set out to do. There’s no way you can do a show about married life honestly during the family hour. And with Phyllis, we had a written part for Barbara Colby, and she was killed. Good as Liz Torres was, it just had to be changed. I think that there is no question that Phyllis is a better show under the new format, and I think the ratings will eventually reflect it. As writers, we did what we had to do.”

Tinker attributes the early ratings to stiff competition from movies such as Earthquake and believes they will go up in weeks to come. “I’m staring at numbers that I think are atypical,” he says, “and creatively, looking at the series themselves, I think they are going to do very well.”

Yet, he had no excuses for the failure of The Lorenzo and Henrietta Music Show, MTM’s first venture into syndication, which was yanked off the air in Los Angeles in mid-October after KTTV canceled: “It was a failure, it didn’t succeed, it wasn’t good enough. I can’t think of anything more I can say after that.” Still, it can’t be comfortable watching problems arise with the other MTM properties just as they’re putting their first—and still best—creation to rest.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show operates on a five-day-week basis, with the cast gathering on Monday to read the script. Revisions are made on Tuesday, and the scenes are blocked out and rehearsed Wednesday and Thursday, with the final run-through ending late Friday afternoon, a couple of hours prior to filming before a live audience.

Over the years, while the basic premise of a single woman making it on her own has remained unchanged, all of the characters have grown. “The biggest change has been in Mary,” Ed Weinberger says. “She’s grown up. We started out with an almost virginal girl, very concerned with dating and her love life, and then the show began to make statements about a woman along, having a good life, having a career, without always having to have a guy around. The other changes have been more subtle. The character of Lou Grant could have just been a cliché, but we’ve showed other sides of the man.”

Another member of the staff remarks that during the first season, Ted Baxter was a “two-dimensional character, but now he is a very real person who can choke you up when he’s in trouble, or break you up with just a walk.”

Although it’s Mary’s name in the title, many of the plots highlight other members of the superb company and only peripherally involve Mary, who is at her bst reacting to others. Her classically pretty, girl-next-door features can stretch into a silly-putty, Dresden-doll version of Joe E. Brown when she wants them to. Unlike some comics, she can get laughs without losing her dignity—a clown who can be funny without making a fool of herself.

Mary strides onto the set wearing form-fitting pink T-shirt, leotards cut high on the hips, and ballet slippers. At 39, she has the long, lithe limbs of a dancer and the curves of a Barbie doll. A cigarette dangling from one hand, she does the last scene before the cast breaks for lunch. “Mary Richards never smokes and Mary Tyler Moore wishes she didn’t either,” says a publicist. 

She’ll spend the lunch hour on the set, taking a rigorous modern dance lesson along with Gavin MacLeod’s wife and blonde daughter, and actress Beverly Saunders, who plays Rhoda’s perennially pregnant friend Susie.  

When rehearsals resume at 2 p.m., she appears freshly showered, dressed in brown slacks and a long maroon man-styled shirt, her auburn hair loose and casual, and her freckled, tanned face well-scrubbed and unmade-up. During breaks, she sometimes returns to her trailer dressing room just steps away, and sometimes to the long bare cast-table lined with directors’ chairs, where she sips a glass of iced diet soda and studies some still photographs with a magnifying glass. “I’d like to kill all of these,” she announces, peering at pictures of herself in a sudsy tub.  

The pictures were of her first screen bath. “I had to keep scooping the bubbles up around me because if we had too few I’d be exposed and if we had too many it would be Doris Day time.”

Along with doing the specials next year, Mary’s also superintending the building of a new house in Bel-Air. “After 14 years of marriage and 15 abodes, Grant and I have decided we know what we like and what we need,” she says.

The house, as described by its mistress, will be “small and simple, with one bedroom and a guest house and a few luxuries like a tennis court and a pool house. Since the tennis court will have to be elevated, there will be room for a little ballet studio underneath,” she says delightedly. 

“The house we’re living in now is too big. It has three vacant bedrooms and a living room we’ve only been in twice, both times on Thanksgiving when we had all my relatives over.”

 There are a number of reasons why the show is going off the air, and the most prosaic one is money. Unlike Norman Lear’s taped shows, which net an immediate profit, filmed weekly series often operate at a deficit until they go into syndication. And it usually takes six or seven seasons to amass enough episodes to put together a good syndication deal.

“The decision was based on a number of factors,” says Tinker, the man who made it. “The creative side, of course, was wanting to quit while the audience still thinks we’re good; and then there’s the business angle of wanting to get it into syndication while it’s still a big drawing card. Mary’s show, I think, is going to be one of the all-time grossers, and I hate that word. I think it will sell better than any situation comedy ever has.”

Then, too, after seven seasons, they are running out of plausible plots. “We’re trying desperately not to repeat ourselves, and we won’t, but I think that another season would have been stretching it,” Weinberger says.

“Everyone will be sad not to come in on Monday morning and see the same familiar faces, but in every case, the cast is going on to do wonderful things to enhance their careers,” a staff member says.

Ed Asner, who plays Mary’s boss, Lou Grant, the burly, abrasive, but lovable ex-newspaperman who produces the WJM-TV news, will continue the character in a new format under the MTM banner next season. Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, creators of the MTM formula will write the one-hour series. “There’ll be a greater concentration on drama, with Lou going back on a newspaper, and we’ll be doing it without an audience, which I’ll miss,” Asner says. The veteran character actor, who won an Emmy last year for his part in Rich Man, Poor Man, will also play the late Huey Long in an upcoming film.

Betty White also has a deal with MTM and CBS to do a pilot, buy plans are still so embryonic, she says, that “I don’t know yet whether it will be about Sue Ann, but it undoubtedly will be a character with some of Sue Ann’s qualities, or lack thereof, if you want to put it that way.”

There’s talk of a part for Georgia Engel in the Betty White show, and the wispy-voiced blonde is hot right now, appearing this season on The Captain and Tennille and two Dean Martin specials.

Director Jay Sandrich is blocking a scene. Ted Knight has done a line three or four times when Sandrich interrupts to tell him to move over and stand on the other side of Gavin MacLeod. 

Still completely in the Ted Baxter characterization, Knight continues without missing a beat. “Heyyy, guys, I’m not going to be in the shot. It’s all right, Jay. I won’t have to put up with this much longer.”

Ted Knight, who is under exclusive contract to CBS, will be “projecting pilots to CBS,” he says. “I’ve already made a special which will air December 8, based on an idea I had about having a Ted Knight day in my hometown of Terryville, Connecticut. Fred MacMurray plays the mayor, Ethel Merman is my old schoolteacher and Phil Silvers is my drama coach. I think from now on, I’ll be playing myself and using some of the Baxterisms in order not to disappoint the public.

“I’m looking forward to a consistent level of involvement. It’s been harder for Gavin and me because some weeks we have had substantial parts and other weeks it’s been a pittance. It’s hard to be a star one week and subservient the next. I’ve had to make compromises, do dumb things that I didn’t want to do, for the sake of the role. I’ve prostituted myself, hating it all the time, and I just hope I haven’t drawn all the curtains—that the creative juices are still flowing.

“I’m going to miss the steady paycheck, Gavin McLeod, and the man who makes the coffee,” he says. “Maybe the rest of the remorse will catch up with me later.”

MacLeod had been typecast as a psychotic killer before he was tapped to do the cynical, laid-back newswriter Murray Slaughter, Mary’s confidante in the newsroom. “Ted Knight and I used to see each other at interviews,” MacLeod recalls. “He and I and Ed Asner used to be up for the same parts, all the ones Warren Oats got.”

Leaning forward in the blue director’s chair with his name stenciled on the back, MacLeod says, “ Life is full of different times, and this has been one of the most fruitful times in my life. It doesn’t seem like seven years. When I started this show, my oldest girl couldn’t even pronounce it. She called it the Tiny Miley Moore Show. Now she’s in junior high.”

MacLeod says the series has changed his life. The rangy actor has gotten into natural foods and thinks that the whole cast looks better physically than it did when the show debuted.

With his second wife, Patty, he’s been touring in a nightclub act—Gavin MacLeod and the Hot Flashes—and will take it to Australia in the spring. “We sing and dance, tell stories. It’s a positive act, just up, up, up. People come to see it and come back with their children.” MacLeod says he has also been offered “a surprising number of pilots.”

“I said in one interview that I was looking forward to getting back to playing heavies, that I wanted to trade my typewriter in for a tommy gun, or a knife, or any blunt instrument. When that appeared in print, did I get letters!”

Another hand goes up. “Will Mary get married on the last show?”

 “A lot of people ask that question,” Lloyd replies. “And maybe we should try it out on this audience here tonight. How many of you would like to see Mary Richards get married?” 

Applause.

“How many of you would like to see her find a steady boyfriend who became a regular character?”

A few handclaps.

“How many of you would like to see her fool around like crazy?”

Lots of applause.

“How many would like to see her stricken with a disgusting social disease?”

Wild applause.

“I wouldn’t want to see it all tied up in a ribbon,” Mary says. “I think the last show will probably be a farewell show, with a tearful goodbye, so that we won’t all be working with tears in our eyes in an episode that’s supposed to be upbeat. But to have Mary Richards get married and live happily ever after would be to turn our backs on all we’ve said on this show, and all the good we’ve done.

“Society says marriage is the ultimate goal, and it is the most wonderful state for many people—it certainly is for me—but it’s not for everyone. In terms of asserting the right of a woman to be single and to have a career, we’ve said a lot in this show and I wouldn’t want to undo it now.”

“We had planned to end it just about the way it was reported in Army Archerd’s column,” says Weinberger. “We wanted to have everybody leaving the newsroom, all fired, with the exception of Ted, which we thought would be a nice ironic touch. Mary would be doing a documentary that would take her out of the country, and Lou would be going to a newspaper, and Murray getting another job in Minneapolis.

“We wanted to duplicate the emotions we would feel actually, to make a situation where it appeared unlikely that they would ever see each other again, so that their on-the-air goodbyes would be their personal goodbyes. In a way, I’m a little sorry that it’s been discussed, but it’s probably still the way we’re going to go.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about marrying Mary off,” David Lloyd confides to the audience. “In fact, there’s been some thought of having her marry Lou Grant. But Allan Burns says there’s only one way that he’ll hear of it. And that’s if we have Mary marry Lou in the very last show of the last season. Then, in the last scene, we have the two of them alone together in their bedroom, in the dark. 

“The very last words we would hear would be Mary’s voice saying, ‘Oh, Mr. Grant!’”

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